Could India’s abortion law soon change? Steps may be taken towards amending the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, as the Centre has informed the Delhi High Court it is consulting with ministries on the same.
Social activist Amit Sahni filed a public interest litigation (PIL) before the High Court earlier this year, seeking that the gestation period in which abortion is permitted be extended to between 24 and 26 weeks. Currently, Indian law permits abortion only in the first twenty weeks of pregnancy in cases where “the pregnancy would involve a risk to the life of the pregnant woman or of grave injury physical or mental health; or there is a substantial risk that if the child were born, it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.” This would require the assent of one medical practitioner in the first twelve weeks and two medical practitioners thereafter.
In its response, the Centre stated “the administrative ministry has already initiated the process of inter-ministerial consultation for the amendment in MTP Act 1971 and will finalise the same as soon as possible.” An affidavit filed before the High Court explained that a note had been sent earlier in the year to the Union Law Ministry with the solicited opinions of consulted ministries and government think tank Niti Aayog. The Ministry reverted the note back during the adjournment sine die of Parliament, but with the note that the matter could be looked at again by the relevant ministry after consultation with stakeholders.
“Thirteen Indian women die due to unsafe abortions every day, making unsafe abortions the third biggest cause of maternal mortality in India. As many as 56 percent of abortions performed in India are considered unsafe.”
The proceedings could be a sign of coming abortion law reform, which activists have campaigned for for years. Whilst India’s abortion laws are ostensibly liberal, they have also been the target of criticism.
The lack of a provision in the law for an abortion after twenty weeks leads to the need for “judicial authorisation”. This refers to a Bombay High Court ruling issued earlier this year which stated that abortions after twenty weeks can be carried out, but only with the approval of a district-level medical board and a court. An exception was made by the Court for instances where failure to immediately terminate the pregnancy would result in the death of the woman.
The Centre for Reproductive Rights (CRR), however, argued that “a vast majority of Indian women and girls lack financial and legal resources to seek judicial authorization and will be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term or risk their lives through unsafe abortion. It also noted that “judicial and medical board authorization requirements endanger women’s and girls’ reproductive rights by leading to delays, denials, public scrutiny and trauma, and a chilling effect on access to abortion even at earlier stages of pregnancy.”
The CRR’s argument regarding unsafe abortions, in particular, is not without basis. Thirteen Indian women die due to unsafe abortions every day, making unsafe abortions the third biggest cause of maternal mortality in India. As many as 56 percent of abortions performed in India are considered unsafe.
“Abortion is no doubt controversial on a number of fronts. Yet it is clear that, to prevent the deaths of women through unsafe ‘backdoor’ abortions in unsupervised environments where they are at risk of lasting physical complications and even death, safe abortions should be accessible to those who need them. As such, that the government could make them more so is welcome news.”
Research suggests that official estimates as to the number of abortions in India misjudge them by a factor of twenty – in no small part due to the fact that 78 percent of abortions take place outside of a medical facility. Dr Susheela Singh of the Guttmacher Institute, which carried out the research, stated “our study’s findings suggest that the reality for many women in India is that they experience significant barriers to accessing abortion care in a health facility.” This is supported by research from The British Medical Journal which stated “the high estimated prevalence of unsafe abortion demonstrates a major public health problem in India. Socioeconomic vulnerability and inadequate access to healthcare services combine to leave large numbers of women at risk of unsafe abortion and abortion-related death.”
It is worth noting that the Guttmacher Institute’s research found that the majority of abortions in India (73 percent) are medication-based. Such abortions are generally safe. However, they are not without risk. The unsupervised use of informally procured medicines can result in numerous complications. This is to say nothing of other methods of so-called ‘backstreet’ abortions, such as risky surgical operations where the consequences can be dire and often fatal.
Abortion is no doubt controversial on a number of fronts. Yet it is clear that, to prevent the deaths of women through unsafe ‘backdoor’ abortions in unsupervised environments where they are at risk of lasting physical complications and even death, safe abortions should be accessible to those who need them. As such, that the government could make them more so is welcome news.