Abortion has always been a very controversial issue. For reasons unclear, more often than not people who don’t have any experience with pregnancy or motherhood are left to debate about this issue. Many social, cultural, and religious norms also dominate our opinions. Considering we have to hush and change the channel at the prospects of any kind of sexual conversation or scene, having a healthy conversation around abortion is far from reality. In a world where women have been historically marginalized and are still underrepresented in our parliaments, making laws favourable for women is difficult. We can get to know a lot about a country’s social and cultural conditions by judging the laws it has for women. In this article, we will look at one such law, the medical termination of pregnancy (amendment) bill, 2020.
The medical termination of pregnancy (amendment) bill, 2020 was introduced by the Minister of health and family, Dr Harsh Vardhan in the Lok Sabha on March 2, 2020. This is an amendment to the medical termination of pregnancy act, 1971. It has been passed in the Lok Sabha.
The 1971 act states two reasons a medical practitioner can cite while giving their approval to terminate a pregnancy. These two reasons are:
a) Continuance of the pregnancy would involve a risk to the life of the pregnant woman (her physical or mental health).
b) There is a substantial risk that if the child were born, it would suffer from some physical or mental abnormalities to be seriously handicapped.
There are several ways in which this bill is different from the MTP act, 1971. Following are some proposed amendments:
The 1971 act allows pregnancy to be terminated within 12 weeks if a medical practitioner finds any of the above two reasons in a particular case. Two medical practitioners are required to give their opinion, for termination of pregnancy between 12 to 20 weeks. This provision is amended under the bill. The bill states that a pregnancy may be terminated within 20 weeks with the opinion of a registered medical practitioner. For termination of pregnancy between 20 to 24 weeks, the approval of two registered medical practitioners will be required.
This amendment is necessary because several fetus abnormalities are detected after the 20th week. This could often turn a wanted pregnancy into an unwanted one. Usually, the fetal anomaly scan is done during the 20-21st week of pregnancy. If due to any reason this scan is delayed, and a lethal anomaly in the fetus is detected, the 20 weeks period is limiting. This extension would allow termination of pregnancy in cases where some anomaly in the fetus is reported after 20 weeks.
Under the 1971 Act, if any pregnancy occurs as a result of the failure of any device or method used by a married woman or her husband as contraception, such unwanted pregnancy may result in a grave injury to the mental health of the woman. The bill amends this provision to replace ‘married women or her husband’ with ‘woman or her partner’
The bill also states that any registered medical practitioner will not be allowed to reveal the name and other details of a woman whose pregnancy has been terminated, except to a person authorized by any law for the time being in force. Anyone who violates this provision will be punishable with imprisonment of up to one year, or with a fine, or both.
It also makes a progressive change by relaxing a clause of the 1971 Act, i.e., single women couldn’t cite contraceptive failure as a reason for seeking an abortion. Obstetricians argue that this has also spurred a cottage industry (kind of informal industry) of places providing unsafe abortion services, even leading to the death of the mother. Allowing unmarried women to medically terminate pregnancies and a provision to protect the privacy of the person seeking an abortion will bestow reproductive rights to the women.
The bill increases the upper gestation limit from 20 to 24 weeks for special categories of women which includes vulnerable women including survivors of rape, victims of incest, and other vulnerable women (like differently-abled women, minors), etc.
The 1971 act states that, if a minor wants to terminate her pregnancy, written consent from the guardian is required. The proposed law has excluded this provision.
The bill says that the upper limit of termination will not apply in cases where such termination is necessary due to the diagnosis of substantial fetal abnormalities. These will be diagnosed by a medical board. Under the bill, every state government is required to constitute a medical board, which will consist of the following members-: (i) a gynecologist, (ii) a pediatrician, (iii) a radiologist or sonologist, and (iv) any other number of members, as may be notified by the state government. The central government will notify the powers and functions of these Medical Boards.
The bill does not state the period within which the board must make its decision. Because termination of pregnancy is a time-sensitive matter, any delays by the medical board may cause complications and affect the health of the pregnant woman.
One of the major drawbacks of this bill is that it doesn’t give any clarification on whether it includes transgender persons. The bill and the act mention ‘Pregnant Woman’. Some studies have shown that people who identify as transgender and not a woman can become pregnant even after undergoing hormone therapy to transition to male from female. In such situations, they may require termination services. The bill is unclear on this matter.
Even though the bill is a much-needed step forward, it still fails to give women the agency they deserve. Under this bill, abortion is given on need-based, as per the two reasons explained above, and not on rights-based. Moreover, a law cannot be beneficial if it doesn’t take into account the real-life conditions of our society and our healthcare system. Our government should work on making healthcare accessible in terms of availability and affordability to all people. Second, taboos around sex, contraceptives, and abortion need to be broken. India needs to have more comprehensive sex education programs and policies. Unless there is a taboo around premarital sex, women won’t be comfortable approaching appropriate authorities, which may lead to going for unsafe abortion options. One other obstacle is the religious and moral norms, due to which people don’t feel comfortable with ending a life. Women who choose not to have kids are also often not seen as the ‘ideal women’.
Unless these developments take place parallelly, women of our generation won’t be able to reap the benefits of this law. The law also needs to work on other shortfalls. It could be a step in the right direction which could lead to women empowerment in our country. Reproductive rights are basic rights. A country with regressive laws for half of its citizens cannot prosper.
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The views expressed in this article are the author's own.