On Wednesday, 18 September, the Supreme Court heard arguments that challenge the Medical Termination of Pregnancy or MTP Act. The arguments will question the validity of the Act and argue for the liberalization of existing provisions relating to termination of pregnancy, in particular, the extension of the termination allowance from 20 to 24-26 weeks.
The petition was first filed in 2009 by Dr Nikil Datar, and the case will be presented by senior advocate Colin Gonsalves.
In light of this, we have published this piece by Dr Nandita Palshetkar and Mr Vinoj Manning outlining their arguments against the current MTP and their recommended amendments of the act.
The Supreme Court accepting a PIL to examine the relevance of the restrictions placed on abortion access by the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act highlights the policy limitations that inhibit women’s access to comprehensive abortion care and ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights.
Unsafe abortion is the third largest cause of maternal mortality in India with 10 women dying everyday due to unsafe abortions despite the country being one of the few in the world to have legalised abortion with the passage of the MTP Act in 1971.
However, abortion policy has not been changed to keep up with the advancement in abortion technologies and increased aspirations of women and girls to control their body and exercise their reproductive health rights.
The PIL stated that the issue of safe abortion and restriction on the reproductive choice of women and other incidental issues require consideration and urgent resolution by the apex court as it “severely, drastically and irreversibly” affects all women of the country and is not a regional issue.
The right to exercise reproductive choice i.e. the right to choose whether to conceive and carry a pregnancy to its full term or to terminate is at the core of one’s privacy, dignity, personal autonomy, bodily integrity, self-determination and right to health recognised by Article 21 of the Constitution.
The urgent need for amendment of the MTP Act, is to make it relevant for the 21st century. The abortion law needs to be made more responsive to women’s rights and provide equitable access for unmarried, vulnerable and marginalised women.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare after a series of consultation proposed amending the MTP Act and circulated a draft bill for public comments in 2014. The amendments proposed by the government in 2014 included making abortion a right of a woman in the first trimester, increasing the gestation limit of abortion for vulnerable categories of women, and extending the condition of “failure of contraception” as an indication for abortion (currently applicable only for married women) to include unmarried women.
However, the proposed amendments still await the Union Cabinet’s approval. The amendments to the MTP Act 1971 need to be passed immediately. However, that alone is not enough. The amendments need to be implemented in letter and spirit so that the new law unlocks a reality where women get full access to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights and take decisions on whether to continue with a pregnancy or not.
The amendment to the law is the responsibility of the parliament. However, ensuring the law makes a real difference to the lives of women and girls is the responsibility of a broad range of stakeholders; the public health system, judiciary, medical community, civil society organizations and the media.
(Dr Nandita Palshetkar is President, Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI) and Mr Vinoj Manning is the CEO, Ipas Development Foundation)
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