Cabinet clears reforms related to abortion, reproductive rights

New measures extend deadline for abortions to 24 weeks, include unmarried women


The cabinet has cleared some key reforms related to medical termination of pregnancy recognising women’s agency over their reproductive choices. This is however a marked departure from the government’s own stand on the subject as recently as September 2019.  

Four months ago, responding to a petition filed in the Supreme Court demanding an extension on the deadline for abortions to 26 weeks the government had submitted that it was duty bound to protect all citizens including fetuses that are considered viable from the point they become five months old. The government had therefore stated its position as believing that reproductive autonomy did not trump the State’s interest in protecting the live of a foetus. The government was therefore reluctant to extend the deadline beyond the existing 20-week period.

Current unamended provisions of the MT Act

At present, section 3 of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1071 reads as follows:

When pregnancies may be terminated by registered medical practitioners

(1) Notwithstanding anything contained in the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860), a registered medical practitioner shall not be guilty of any offence under that Code or under any other law for the time being in force, if any pregnancy is terminated by him in accordance with the provisions of this Act.

(2) Subject to the provisions of sub-section(4),a pregnancy may be terminated by a registered medical practitioner, –

(a) Where the length of the pregnancy does not exceed twelve weeks if such medical practitioner is, or

(b) Where the length of the pregnancy exceeds twelve weeks but does not exceed twenty weeks, if not less than two registered medical practitioner are,of opinion, formed in good faith, that –

(i) The continuance of the pregnancy would involve a risk to the life of the pregnant woman or of grave injury to her physical or mental health; or

(ii) There is a substantial risk that if the child were born, it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities to be seriously handicapped.

Explanation 1- Where any pregnancy is alleged by the pregnant woman to have been caused by rape, the anguish caused by such pregnancy shall be presumed to constitute a grave injury to the mental health of the pregnant woman.

Explanation 2- Where any pregnancy occurs as a result of failure of any device or method used by any married woman or her husband for the purpose of limiting the number of children, the anguish caused by such unwanted pregnancy may be resumed to constitute a grave injury to the mental health of the pregnant woman.

(3) In determining whether the continuance of a pregnancy would involve such risk of injury to the health as is mentioned in sub-section(2)account may be taken of the pregnant womens actual or reasonable foreseeable environment.

(4) (a) No pregnancy of a woman, who has not attained the age of eighteen years, or, who, having attained the age of eighteen years, is a lunatic, shall be terminated except with the consent in writing of her guardian.
(b) Save as otherwise provided in clause (a), No pregnancy shall be terminated except with the consent of the pregnant woman.

What the new reforms hope to achieve

However, on Wednesday, speaking to media persons at a Cabinet briefing Union Minister Prakash Javadekar said, “In a progressive reform and giving reproductive rights to women, the limit of 20 weeks of medical termination of pregnancy has been increased to 24 weeks.” He explained the rationale behind this saying “This is important because in first five months there are cases where the girl concerned doesn’t realise and has to go to court.”

Another, issue faced by many women seeking abortions is that of marital status. Many unmarried women are routinely shamed for exercising their sexual agency and made to feel guilty about not only becoming pregnant but also choosing to terminate the pregnancy. This forces many women to seek unsafe abortions from untrained or poorly trained practitioners in back-alley clinics under unhygienic conditions.

The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill (2020) to amend the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (1971) that is likely to be introduced in the next session of the Parliament attempts to rectify this. According to the Indian Express, the bill seeks to aid unmarried women seeking abortions by relaxing the contraceptive-failure condition for “any woman or her partner” from the present provision for “only married woman or her husband”, allowing them to medically terminate the pregnancy.



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