Significantly, this provision applies to unmarried women and therefore, relaxes one of the regressive clauses of the 1971 Act — single women couldn’t cite contraceptive failure as a reason for seeking abortion.
The Union cabinet has done well to approve a Bill that seeks to amend India’s outmoded abortion law. On Tuesday, it gave its nod to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020. If it gets Parliament’s sanction, this piece of legislation will amend the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971. Slated for introduction in Parliament’s budget session, the Bill seeks to increase the upper gestation limit from 20 to 24 weeks for termination of pregnancy. Significantly, this provision applies to unmarried women and therefore, relaxes one of the regressive clauses of the 1971 Act — single women couldn’t cite contraceptive failure as a reason for seeking abortion. It also has a provision to protect the privacy of the person seeking abortion.
The MTP Act, 1971 was replete with unclear language, which resulted in doctors refusing to perform abortions even within the stipulated 20 week gestation limit. Women had to seek the approval of the judiciary, which, by most accounts, did not always come in time. “As a result”, notes a 2015 study in the India Journal of Medical Ethics, “10 to 13 per cent of maternal deaths in India are due to unsafe abortions”. Introducing the proposed law, Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Prakash Javadekar said that the MTP Bill 2020 “will help reduce maternal mortality”. Extending the gestation period to 24 weeks is a significant step in this regard. However, the government should also learn from the experiences of the 1971 Act: The new piece of legislation should be worded in a manner that obviates frequent appeals to the judiciary. Such fine print would — more significantly — be essential to accomplishing one of the Bill’s main goals, as emphasised by Javadekar: “Giving reproductive rights to women”.
One of the criticisms of the MTP Act, 1971 was that it failed to keep pace with advances in medical technology that allow for the removal of a foetus at a relatively advanced state of pregnancy. Moreover, a number of foetus abnormalities are detected after the 20th week, often turning a wanted pregnancy into an unwanted one. The proposed MTP law intends to address such medical complications. But matters related to women’s agency over her womb get complicated by the social milieu in parts of the country: The ante-diluvian preference for a male child keeps sex determination centres in business in spite of their illegal status. There are concerns that a more liberal abortion law can aggravate this state-of-affairs. The litmus test of the proposed MTP law’s claims to being women-centric lies in addressing all such concerns.