ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Of Life and Choice

Why is the draft Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2014 in limbo?

On 25 July, the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court passed orders in two separate cases that are landmarks as far as women’s right to legal abortion in India is concerned. The apex court allowed a 21-year-old woman to abort her 24-week-old foetus although the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971 does not sanction abortion beyond 20 weeks. (The woman has since undergone a safe abortion in a Mumbai public hospital.) In the other case, the high court has given permission to a 16-year-old to abort her 26-week-old foetus if a panel of doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) agrees that it is safe to do so. Over the years, it is individual women who have approached the courts on the act’s implementation and especially for the relaxation or ruling on the relevant section, who have forced the pace of public discourse on this subject. In fact, it is the discourse on one such much-publicised case before the Bombay High Court in 2008 that gradually led to the draft MTP (Amendment) Bill, 2014 being released for public comments. However, there has been hardly any progress on it since.

The demand for extending the 20-week limit has been a long pending one. It has been clear to all stakeholders for many years now that medical technology has moved far beyond the state it was in when the 1971 law was passed. Besides, a number of abnormalities and risks can be detected only after the 18th week of pregnancy. The draft bill takes many of the post-1971 developments into account. For example, it allows abortion between 20 weeks and 24 weeks if the mother or foetus is at risk and puts no ceiling on termination in the presence of life-threatening foetal abnormalities. Importantly, it takes note of allegations by the woman concerned that the pregnancy has been caused by rape in permitting the termination of pregnancy. In both the recent cases before the apex court and the high court respectively, the petitioners have been described as rape survivors. The woman who has already undergone the abortion had moved the Supreme Court after it was found that the foetus had anencephaly (lack of brain) and omphalocele (abdominal organs protruding into the spinal cord). In the case of the teenager, a complaint against her abductor and rapist is under investigation.

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