The law overseeing abortion in India known as the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act has been in existence for 50 years now. In these years, the law has been amended twice- first in 2002 and then recently in 2021. The last decade witnessed huge developments in the medical field with safer and simple technologies coming up. Abortion has also become relatively simpler with manual vacuum and medical drugs and other diagnostic techniques helping identify fetal abnormalities around 20 weeks gestation period.
Source – Reuters
Advances in medical technology are supplemented by increasing awareness and appreciation of the need for women to have absolute control over what happens with their bodies. There is evidence for this in the court judgements of recent years such as Puttaswamy Judgement of the Supreme Court, Suchita Srivastava v Chandigarh Admin etc. and international conventions like Convention on Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women have acknowledged women’s rights over their bodies.
Abortion, a sensitive subject underwent amendments under the MTP Act in 2021 with great expectation of making the law contemporary and progressive with an agenda of making India better able in setting an example on a global level on such a sensitive issue. The Act which came into force in 1971 was a basic step that India had taken towards women’s rights. The 2021 amendment, however, was expected to bring about inclusivity which was not achieved. It lacked emphasis on issues such as access to safe abortion care and women’s rights in general. The amended law fails to recognize abortion as a choice that women have which can be sought on demand ad is practiced in 73 other countries.
Some of the changes brought about by the amendment include-
a. The raising of gestation period for abortions from 20 weeks to 24 weeks, however, this is the case for only special cases such as rape or incest victims. This termination can only be performed after the approval of two registered doctors.
b. Pregnancies up to 20 weeks must require at least one doctor’s approval.
c. If a woman endures a contraceptive failure, then she is eligible to get her pregnancy terminated irrespective of her marital status.
d. An abortion is permitted when a board of medical professionals approve a case of foetal disability and in such cases no upper gestation limit is suggested.
Source – Wikimedia Commons
However, the law still does not grant complete autonomy to women over their bodies.
It is important to take into account that amendments alone never guarantee change, the success of such amendments lie in its implementation. Even though abortion is legal in India, it does not ensure that it would be accessible to all. Accessibility of safe abortion is the next big step that the government needs to work on.
The Supreme Court and High Courts of India heard at least 194 writ petitions filed by women between June 2016 and April 2019 wanting to end their pregnancy medically. It was found that there were several systematic issues in the process which led to unfavourable outcomes for most women.
A major factor here is the unavailability of medical abortion drugs in the market. It was taken up to ensure that child sex ratio does not deplete in the country however, this overregulation has led to severe disservice to pregnant women. These drugs can be used upto nine weeks of gestation.
A number of loopholes exist in the MTP Act and gender-based sex selection which together hinder women’s right and access to abortion. Drug stores are asked to be more vigilant about medical abortion drugs and the identity of those who buy them. This is a clear violation of the MTP Act which ensures confidentiality of women.
Misconceptions over sex-based selection have led overregulation of about medical abortion drugs in comparison to Schedule-H drugs which is a class of prescription drugs used in India. It the extremely important to clear the air among drug regulators and health officials with regard to abortion drugs to ensure that there is no discrimination against abortion pills and it is treated like any other Schedule-H drug.
Source – Probono India
The current circumstances are also extremely critical for abortion seekers as many facilities have been turned into COVID- care centres rendering abortion services unserviceable for the past year and a half. Although India recognizes abortion as an essential service, there is a huge gap between the service providers and abortion seekers.
In spite of the little progress that we’ve made, abortion continues to remain a stigmatised subject in India, especially within the medical fraternity. There have been numerous reports of women not being able to get abortions based on the moral grounds of doctors.
Written by- Sakshi Shah
Edited by- Sohini Roy