Hon’ble Supreme Court has agreed to examine the constitutional validity of the law that bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless there’s an immediate threat to the would-be mother’s life. The Supreme Court on 5-8-2014 has decided to hear arguments on a plea seeking to extend the 20-week legal limit for abortion under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971.
The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, allows abortions only till the 20th week of pregnancy for reasons such as severe foetal abnormalities or a grave risk to the pregnant woman’s health.
A bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi posted the matter challenging the legal provision. Medical experts and women’s activists have for years been recommending that abortions be allowed beyond 20 weeks in case of a risk to the pregnant woman’s mental or physical health — even if it is not life-threatening — or severe foetal abnormalities. This is in line with the law in most countries where abortions are legal.
Senior advocate, appearing for petitioners Mrs X and Mrs Y (who suffered due to such provision), argued that the existing 20-week limit under the MTP Act violated women’s rights to bodily integrity as even in the case of severe foetal abnormalities, it forced women to carry pregnancies. He argued that with the advancement in technology, the restriction did not hold good as the abnormalities in the foetus could be detected earlier.
Three people have approached the Supreme Court, seeking an extension of the limit on abortion from 20 to 28 weeks. Patient Mrs. Niketa Mehta in year 2008 approached Hon’ble Bombay High Court for allowing her to undergo abortion after a cardiac defect was detected in the foetus in the 24th week of gestation. However, at that time her petition was rejected by the Hon’ble Bombay High Court stating that provisions allowing MTP up to 20 weeks are constitutional, valid and legal.
However, in present petition before Hon’ble Supreme Court, it is argued that, the legislation was made on the basis of a study carried out in 1971. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act also came into force in 1971. Now, with advanced technology, there is no harm in women going for abortion at any stage. Even a committee of experts has suggested that extension will cause no mental or physical harm.
The National Commission for Women, the Federation of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of India (FOGSI), the international community and women's groups agree that the 20-week limit imposed by the MTP Act is irrational, outdated and unconstitutional. Out of the 26 million births that occur in India every year, approximately 2-3 per cent foetuses have a severe congenital or chromosomal abnormality, the petition said.
Most countries, which have legalised abortion, allow termination after 20 weeks in case of severe foetal abnormalities or to protect the mental or physical health of a pregnant woman.
However, it is pertinent to note that the period between 16 and 20 weeks is the ideal time to check for anomalies in foetuses through Sonography. Doctors generally ask a patient to undergo tests around the 18th week to find abnormalities.
It is true that some anomalies are picked only at a later stage of pregnancy but don't know whether raising MTP to the 28th week will be a good decision.