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Govt Wrong in Stalling Abortion Law Reforms, Say Experts

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is said to have returned the proposed amendments to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act to the health ministry and called for stricter implementation of the existing law.

Debayan Roy |

Updated:June 9, 2017, 2:04 PM IST
Govt Wrong in Stalling Abortion Law Reforms, Say Experts
Representative image (Courtesy: Getty Images)

New Delhi: The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is said to have returned the proposed amendments to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act to the health ministry and called for stricter implementation of the existing law.

The government has, for long, been putting breaks on the amendment to MTP Act, arguing that it would give rise to illegal sex selection and abortion rackets.

Experts, however, have questioned the argument and said that the amendments, in no way, can bolster such rackets. Amendments to the 1970 Act would have allowed a woman to abort up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, instead of 20 weeks that she is allowed at present. It would have also made it easier for unmarried women to legally abort, as the health ministry had suggested striking off the word ‘married’ from those who were allowed to legally abort.

The PMO has asked the health ministry to make sure that the amendments are such that crush illegal abortion rackets. The government’s directive presumably came in the wake of a homoeopathy practitioner who was caught in Sangli running an illegal selective abortion racket. Experts, however, are not convinced with the government’s reasoning and have called it a ‘misplaced notion’.

“A gender selective abortion usually takes place from the 7th week to the 12th week. In fact, even a simple sonography would reveal the sex of the child in the 12th week. So, one cannot argue that the amendment is going to help illegal abortion rackets,” said advocate Sneha Mukherjee of the Human Rights Law Network.

She was quick to add that the amendment, too, came with riders making it almost impossible for any illegality to take place. “This amendment which allows a woman to have her baby aborted till 24 weeks is not an absolute right. There are reasonable restrictions on it and can only be exercised in situations of emergency or when the baby suffers from a serious abnormality or the pregnancy could pose a threat to the mother’s life,” said Mukherjee.

She added that the most crucial stages of a pregnancy are between 18th and 22nd week when severe fetus anomalies come to light. If a woman is not allowed to abort post 20 weeks, most often these anomalies continue and cannot be eliminated.

Speaking to News18, top gynaecologist and a petitioner in the Supreme Court on a similar case, Dr Nikhil Datar voiced Mukherjee’s concerns and said it was the doctor’s responsibility to inform the expectant mother of any danger to her or the baby.

“Why should a woman wait for 20th or 24th week to terminate a pregnancy that puts her or the baby in danger? In the end, it should be a woman’s right,” he said, adding that abortions should be controlled and regulated, but not at the cost of a woman’s right or safety.

“It must be regulated and there must be a mechanism in place which can let a woman know if the fetus has an abnormality. An element of scrutiny has to be present, but the final decision has to be of the woman. A doctor must inform the woman and make her aware of the risk involved but must not impose his own opinion on the woman,” said Dr Datar.

On February 28, 2017, SC refused to allow a woman to abort her 26-week-old fetus, which would have been born with Down Syndrome, a congenital disorder that postpones the onset of developmental and intellectual features. The bench had noted that it was bound by law to act in such a manner. In May again, the apex court denied permission to a 35-year-old HIV-positive woman to abort her 26-week-old fetus.

Approaching the court, experts said, was a tedious approach and one which didn’t paint the full, grim picture of unwanted pregnancies.

“These women who approach the court are just the tip of the iceberg. A majority of the women suffer due to the current law and are cornered by society. These are the women who then undergo illegal abortions, which is what the government is worried about. Illegal abortions are still happening even with the present law. The government must realise that the amendment might be a chance for scores of women to lead a healthy life,” said Dr Datar.

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| Edited by: Puja Menon
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