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Wednesday, Oct 23, 2019

A safe abortion is every woman’s choice and right

The MTP Amendment Bill of 2014 is a progressive law, it does not insist that the woman be married and it raises the abortion limit to 24 weeks

analysis Updated: Jul 30, 2018 21:07 IST
Lalita Panicker
Lalita Panicker
Hindustan Times
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A child rape survivor is hardly likely to realise that she is pregnant. The 10-year-old rape survivor from Chandigarh whose case hit the headlines last year did not. She was 30 weeks pregnant by the time she reached the doctors. So a child had to bear a child when she was unable to even understand what was happening to her.

There are many like her who suffer unwanted pregnancies due to rape or early marriage. There are women who may decide that they don’t want to go through with their pregnancy. But, in all instances, it should be the woman’s choice to terminate her pregnancy; it is her right. But the law as it stands now is not exactly as helpful as it should be.

The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act 1971 allows for abortion up to 20 weeks providing two doctors sign off. Beyond that, it is only possible if there is a threat to the life of the mother or severe abnormalities to the foetus but only if the courts permit. Here is the added complication. By the time the courts deliberate on it, the 20-week period could well pass leaving the woman with an unwanted pregnancy. Abnormalities to the foetus are normally detected after 20 weeks into the pregnancy by which time it is legally too late.

The fact that this law has not changed in 47 years has meant that more people are now forced to go to the court for a verdict on abortion after the 20-week period. It was to make things easier for women that state medical councils were proposed earlier to decide on this. After all, a doctor is more competent to judge the danger to the mother and unborn child than a judge. In any case, the courts take decisions based on medical advice.

The issue of abortion becomes complicated in the case of minors. Though a minor can get an abortion subject to the consent of her guardian, under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, sex with a minor is actionable under the law. The doctor dealing with a pregnant minor is bound to report this to the authorities even though the MTP comes with a confidentiality clause. This means that many teenagers could go to quacks rather than a qualified doctor for fear of the police getting to know and in turn telling their families.

Then there is the issue of child marriage. While the age of consent is 18 now, a huge cohort of Indian women is married before that age. This means a great number of unwanted pregnancies which will be dealt with outside the purview of the legal medical system.I have read horror stories of quacks posing as doctors conducting abortions using dangerous means often with fatal consequences for the woman.

But the most worrisome is that fact that doctors are loath to perform abortion for fear that they will be accused of selective sex determination. The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act of 1994 makes it a criminal offence to reveal the sex of the child during pregnancy. Certainly, there are doctors who may misuse the law, but this cannot be an excuse to deny a woman the choice of having or not having a baby.

Much of the trauma could have been avoided if the government had acted on the MTP Amendment Bill of 2014. That was a progressive law which did not insist that the woman be married (to have an abortion) and raised the abortion limit to 24 weeks. The PMO sent it to the ministry of health and family welfare which promptly sent it back and that was the end of all movement on it. The point is that fear of social opprobrium, inability to provide for another child, not wanting a child at a particular juncture are some of the reasons a woman may seek an abortion. It should not be made so difficult for her. It should not force her to make the rounds of courts. Abortion is a common procedure and should be treated as such. In the case of rape victims seeking abortion, the law should not stand in the way unless an abortion is medically proven unsafe. The proposed Act is an incremental step forward but seems to be at a standstill at the moment.

First Published: Jul 30, 2018 17:28 IST

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