The Rajya Sabha has approved the extension of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy to 24 weeks from the existing 20 weeks for special categories of women with an aim to expand access of women to safe and legal abortion services.
The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill which was earlier approved by the Union Cabinet in 2020 also removes any upper week gestational limits for women opting for abortion for foetal abnormalities diagnosed by a Medical Board.
Amending the BIll which was first passed in 1971, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has stated that failure of contraception is also an acceptable ground for opting for a legal abortion.
Although the extension of legal abortion to 24 weeks is limited to special categories of people, it will include survivors of rape, victims of incest, differently-abled women, minors and others, the guidelines which the MOFHW will release. If a woman is opting for abortion at 20 weeks, she requires the opinion of only one doctor, but two doctors will be required to suggest an abortion if the pregnancy is at 20-24 weeks.
While the previous abortion period was set at 20 weeks, the move to extend the weeks for legal abortion as well as removing the cap on abortion for any foetal abnormalities comes after several petitions filed by pregnant women in various Courts of law. Along with increasing the ambit and access of services, the government also believes that this amendment will ensure dignity, autonomy confidentiality, and justice for women who seek to terminate their pregnancy.
Why Was The Change Necessary?
The earliest petition to amend the existing guidelines of the Act were in 2008 when a couple from Mumbai petitioned the Bombay High Court to permit them to abort their foetus who was diagnosed with a heart defect at 26 weeks. While the Court remarked that a change in the legislature was due, the petition was not approved as experts felt an abortion was not the right discourse. The woman, in turn, suffered a miscarriage a few weeks after the order was passed.
Furthermore, India was urging Ireland to change its abortion laws after the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 who could not abort her child due to the 12-week abortion rule in the country. At the same time, several women across the country were filing petitions to be permitted the same.
The earlier Bill would also be difficult for survivors of rape as well as minors to resort to health facilities as doctors did not want to be embroiled in the legal processes attached with rape and pregnancies among minors, reports suggest.
A 2019 study published in the British Medical Journal showed that in spite of abortion being legal in the country, 67% abortions were unsafe wherein they were conducted outside health facilities and were conducted using non-medical methods. Such a high number has led to unsafe abortions becoming one of the top reasons contributing to India's maternal mortality.
This Amendment may lead to better awareness among women and assist in reducing maternal mortality due to unsafe abortions.