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Is India’s Abortion Law Going To Get Better With 24 Weeks Upper Limit?

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This week on Wednesday, centre backed a bill that seeks to increase the upper limit of termination of pregnancy from 20 weeks to 24 weeks in the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020 will be tabled in the upcoming session of parliament that opens on Friday, January 31.

Focus of the bill

The bill focuses on increasing access to safe and legal abortion to women on therapeutic, eugenic, humanitarian or social grounds. It is looking at boosting the upper gestation limit for abortion and to bolster access to comprehensive abortion care, under strict conditions, without compromising service and quality of safe abortion.

“The bill will strengthen the reproductive rights of women. They should have a decision of their own if they want to take their pregnancy to full term or not. Earlier, the mortality of pregnant women was about 8% higher due to unsafe abortions. In the case of rape, the woman is weak or underage. Such girls didn’t even know they were pregnant and would fall prey of unsafe abortion practices. The bill will help women getting access to safe abortion,” said Prakash Javadekar, minister for environment and information and broadcasting after a cabinet meeting, Livemint reported.

“Sometimes for adolescent girls who have suffered sexual violence or become sexually active before turning 18, there is a lack of awareness around pregnancy and reproductive health. In those cases, girls come to know about their pregnancy later and in those cases, it is going to be of great help.”

India at a better position than US on abortion laws

While abortion laws may be considered relaxed in India as opposed to the US, where abortion in itself is a political and a divisive issue and women have to struggle hard in some states to exercise their reproductive right to abortion. In 2017, US President Donald Trump removed US funding to any overseas organisation that offers abortions, even if the organisation provides those specific services with their own funds, as per a report in The Guardian. He did this in a meeting devoid of women.

Living in the times when the world is so divided on abortion laws, India perhaps stands at a far better state than some first world countries but our own prejudices still refuse us from giving complete reproductive freedom to women. While increasing the upper limit of the gestation period to terminate the pregnancy seems liberating at first, but is it really that?

That Abortion Law is for women’s healthcare reason is a myth

Dr Aparna Chandra, Assistant Professor of Law Research Director at Centre for Constitutional Law, Policy and Governance (CLPG), discards the argument that the government has a set upper limit for abortion on gestation period to save women’s lives. “At any point in time in the gestation period, the risk from abortion is not higher than the risk from delivery. So medically there is no reason for having an abortion,” Chandra tells SheThe People.

She adds that there may be specific cases for specific reasons why there should be an upper limit for abortion but that is a health concern. “Fundamentally, the abortion law does not take up the abortion issue as a healthcare issue but a moral issue,” Chandra points.

Increasing Upper Limit is a good proposal

However, Baljeet Kaur, Assistant Director at the Department of Health and Family Welfare, Punjab says that terminating a child is possible. “Now the question is of increasing the upper limit of gestation period from 20 to 24 weeks and if it is done through proper and safe hands, it is possible to do it without risk for the mother. Sometimes for adolescent girls who have suffered sexual violence or become sexually active before turning 18, there is a lack of awareness around pregnancy and reproductive health. In those cases, girls come to know about their pregnancy later and in those cases, it is going to be of great help,” Kaur shares her perspective.

Both Kaur and Chandra believe that it has to be a woman’s choice in aborting her child and hence dissemination of correct and proper information on her reproductive health is the need of the hour.

Abortion continues to be a criminal offence

Chandra also notes that a big concern on the ground is that abortion is still confined within the criminal law framework. “It is a criminal offence under the IPC and there is an exception that’s provided under the MTP Act. So as per the IPC law a woman getting an abortion done or anyone who helps her get an abortion done then that’s a criminal offence. However, the MTP Act says notwithstanding anything in the IPC, if a woman follows the Act while getting an abortion done then it won’t be a criminal offence.”

“It provides all the power of decision-making to the doctor and doctors carry with them all sorts of stigmas around abortion and sexual activity, etc. and that impacts women in getting abortion done. However, what we would like to see is to first decriminalize abortion. Women should not have to run the gamut of the criminal justice system in order to secure their basic human rights. The Supreme Court and the International Human Rights norms have all recognized that abortion is a part of a woman’s right to reproductive autonomy and bodily integrity and protected by the constitution,” she explains.

‘Limiting abortion is arbitrary’ – Should there be Abortion Law?

Chandra suggests making an affirmative law around abortion.”Because there is so much refusal and denial of service because of abortion is an issue of criminalization, it makes sense to have an affirmative law that propagates education around the right to sexual reproductive autonomy act which affirmatively tells you that you have a right to abortion and if someone denies you service then here is your remedy.” She calls the upper limit arbitrary because our legal system assumes that women cannot make these decisions on their own and they might randomly choose to have an abortion. “Most women who have gone through a pregnancy or abortion will tell you that no one wants to have an abortion. There are so many circumstances which may push one to have an abortion. It is an informed decision and a painful one at that.”

Women should not have to run the gamut of the criminal justice system in order to secure their basic human rights. The Supreme Court and the International Human Rights Norms have all recognized that abortion is a part of a woman’s right to reproductive autonomy and bodily integrity and protected by the constitution.

She does agree that it is a better amendment, however, claims that our threshold is so low that anything is better. “We have to fundamentally ask, why have this law at all?” she asks.

While India may be at a far better place than some first world countries in terms of abortion laws, the stigma around abortion continues to envelop the service-providers and justice system. In such a scenario, asking the right questions and gaining the right knowledge on abortion is not only important but mandatory.

Pic credit: Myadvo