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The MTP Act 2014 makes safe abortion easier, it should be passed

Given the fact that the basket of contraceptives that should be available to couples are not always accessible, abortion is one way a woman has control over her body and can deal with an unwanted pregnancy

columns Updated: Jul 22, 2017 17:42 IST
Lalita Panicker
Lalita Panicker
Hindustan Times
abortion,Medical Termination of Pregnancy,MTP
Ten women die every day from unsafe abortions, making this the third leading cause of maternal mortality in India.(Reuters File Photo)

The figures are chilling – 10 women die every day from unsafe abortions making this the third leading cause of maternal mortality in India. Clearly, these are the result of back alley procedures owing to the fact, in part, that at least 80% of women don’t know that abortion is legal in India. And unfortunately, many doctors still tend to associate abortions with gender-based sex selection under the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PC&PNDT) Act, 1994, which is illegal. The very word abortion raises the hackles of the conservatives whether in Trump’s America or right here. It is somehow seen as encouraging promiscuity and in the Indian context sex selection.

The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act as it stands is a liberal one, but it could do with a lot of finessing to make it more accessible and safe for women. Let us look at some of the provisions of the Act as it stands. A licensed practitioner can terminate a pregnancy within the first 20 weeks. But this can only be done if its continuation poses a substantial risk to the woman’s life or if the child might have serious handicaps. But if this is discovered after 20 weeks, the woman has to seek legal recourse. This is why a 10-year-old who is a rape victim will have to carry her pregnancy to term after the court recently refused her an abortion since she is now 26 weeks pregnant. This sort of judicial hit-and-miss means that many may just go in for an illegal abortion. The judicial process is so slow that often the victim’s pregnancy crosses the legal limit and she is unable to get an abortion. The law is not clear on unmarried women, this puts a very large cohort at risk of going to quacks. This also smacks of a misplaced morality as if to question the right of any woman to her sexuality and reproductive rights. The complications from a botched abortion are too well known to bear repeating. I am going through all this to highlight that the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill 2014 had actually proposed to deal with some of these problems.

The permissible period for abortion was to have gone up to 24 weeks. And this would not have applied if the unborn child had serious abnormalities. The word married was to go opening the possibility for all women to avail of safe abortion services. Anyone could say that it was contraceptive failure that resulted in an unwanted pregnancy and get an abortion. But for some inexplicable reason, I find that the PMO sent the bill back to the ministry of health and family welfare asking it to strengthen the existing Act which as I mentioned has several gaps.

This is all the more puzzling since the apex court has weighed in on the side of women’s rights asking that the MTP be made more meaningful. One problem seems a prevalent confusion about the role of abortion in selective sex selection which is covered under the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994. But the two are totally different. Doctors conducting safe abortions should not be mistaken for those engaged in sex selection through the elimination of the unborn girl child.

The fear of the law is actually making many doctors hesitant to offer legitimate abortion services to women who need them. Given the fact that the basket of contraceptives that should be available to couples are not always accessible, abortion is one way a woman has control over her body and can deal with an unwanted pregnancy. A strengthened MTP Act will really make a difference to reproductive rights in that it empowers women even more than the present one does. This can only be good for women’s health and give them control over their lives. No one can quarrel with that, can they?

lalita.panicker@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Jul 22, 2017 17:42 IST