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Netizens Debate SC's Ruling On 26-Week Pregnancy Termination

The Supreme Court of India, in its ruling on October 16, 2023, rejected the plea of a married woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy, which had crossed the 24-week mark.

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Oshi Saxena
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The Supreme Court of India, in its ruling on October 16, 2023, rejected the plea of a married woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy, which had crossed the 26-week mark. The decision was made by a bench comprising Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra.

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This legal and moral conundrum has not only engaged the courtroom but has also ignited impassioned conversations on platforms like Twitter, where individuals have voiced their thoughts, concerns, and stances on the matter.

The Case In A Nutshell

Before delving into the myriad reactions, it's crucial to recap the essentials of the case. The three-judge bench, including Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra, convened to address the woman's plea for medical termination. The petitioner, a mother of two, cited severe postpartum depression and the challenges of raising a third child as the driving factors behind her request. However, the court, on October 12, expressed serious concern about the termination at this stage, given the medical report's indication of the foetus's high chances of survival.

The Court's Ruling

The court noted that the termination of the pregnancy would not be in compliance with the MTP Act since the foetus was reported to be healthy and viable by AIIMS. The medical board at AIIMS also sought clarification from the Court regarding stopping the foetal heart for termination, a request the court was averse to granting.

Crucially, the court emphasized that there was no immediate threat to the mother's life, and the case did not involve foetal abnormality, which are the only two exceptions under the MTP Act for terminating a pregnancy beyond the 24-week limit.

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Therefore, the court ordered that all medical procedure costs would be borne by the State, and the petitioner would have the ultimate say on whether she wanted to keep the child upon birth or give it up for adoption.

Supreme Court's Concern: Walking the Ethical Tightrope

On October 12, the Supreme Court expressed serious concern about allowing the termination at this stage. The medical report indicated a high chance of the foetus's survival, which raised the spectre of foeticide.

While recognising the need to uphold a woman's autonomy, Chief Justice DY Chandrachud emphasised that the bench could not be oblivious to the rights of the unborn child. 

Within the hallowed courtroom, Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati presented a compelling argument. She contended that the "exceptional circumstances" allowing late-term pregnancy termination, typically grounded in threats to the mother's life or fetal abnormalities, did not apply to this case.

Bhati emphasised that while a mother's right to decisional autonomy and reproductive choices is crucial, it is not an absolute, constrained by parliamentary law, which remained unchallenged in this instance.

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Simultaneously, Justice Nagarathna drew from Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud's judgment in the X v. Health and Family Welfare Department, which underscored women's autonomy in reproductive decisions. She asserted that whether a pregnancy is unwanted due to family planning failures or sexual assault, the outcome remains the same—the pregnant woman's intent matters more than the fetus's viability.

Justice Nagarathna argued that a fetus's identity is intrinsically linked to the mother, championing women's reproductive rights, including the right to abortion, as a fundamental aspect of women's human rights.

The weight of this ethical tightrope walk forms the heart of the matter, sparking a diverse array of reactions across the virtual landscape.

Netizens' Reactions: Voices Across The Spectrum

X (former Twitter), a platform where opinions are as diverse as the users themselves, has been awash with reactions to this complex case. These reactions reflect the intricate tapestry of Indian society, emphasising the significance of the matter at hand.

Some users have taken to their keyboards to express unwavering support for the woman's right to make decisions about her body. They argued that the Court should prioritise the woman's emotional and mental well-being.

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In contrast, others have voiced concern about the ethical implications of a 26-week termination, particularly in light of the foetus's potential viability. These individuals emphasize the rights of the unborn child and advocate for a cautious approach to such cases.

 

Medical Expertise: Considerations and Risks

To gain insight into the medical perspective, SheThePeople consulted Dr Ruchi Tandon, a seasoned medical expert and founder of Queen's Gynaecology. When asked about the safety of terminating a 26-week pregnancy,

Dr Tandon cautioned, "Second-trimester abortion, especially at 26 weeks, carries significant risks, including heavy bleeding, cervical laceration, and infection. Severe pain and blood loss due to uterine perforation could necessitate major surgery, potentially leading to hysterectomy. Furthermore, there's a risk of retained tissues, including the placenta."

Given these substantial risks, Dr Tandon does not recommend terminating a pregnancy at 26 weeks from a medical standpoint.

A Journey Through Legal Transformations

This case is the latest chapter in India's evolving legal landscape surrounding reproductive rights. It reflects the enduring complexity of this issue, one that intertwines with cultural, ethical, and moral values. To understand the significance of this case, it's essential to journey through the legal transformations that have led us to this point.

Before the enactment of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act in 1971, the medical termination of pregnancy in India was governed by the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The IPC provisions aimed at criminalizing abortions, with little regard for the circumstances. The MTP Act sought to decriminalize abortion in specific defined situations, recognizing the importance of women's reproductive health.

The 2021 Amendment: A Progressive Leap

The 2021 amendment to the MTP Act was a watershed moment. It extended the time period within which abortions could be legally conducted and brought women outside of marital relationships within the legal framework. This change was a significant step forward in recognizing the evolving social norms and ensuring that women had access to safe and legal abortions.

Recent Supreme Court judgments have further pushed the boundaries of reproductive rights. The court recognised the importance of a woman's right to make reproductive choices as a dimension of personal liberty. It also emphasized the critical need for timely decision-making and access to safe and legal abortions.

The Legal Framework

The court based its decision on Sections 3 and 5 of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act. Section 5 of the MTP Act allows for the termination of a pregnancy beyond 24 weeks if it is "immediately necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman." The Supreme Court's interpretation of 'life' under Section 5 has significant implications for cases like the one at hand. The woman's advocate argued for a broad and purposive interpretation of the term 'life,' while the Chief Justice expressed concerns about interpreting 'life' to mean 'meaningful life,' as it could undermine the purpose of Section 3 of the MTP Act.

The Changing Concept of Family

The understanding of the concept of 'family' has also evolved. The Supreme Court recognised that familial relationships may take different forms, beyond traditional marriages. This recognition is vital to ensuring that individuals in non-traditional family structures can access safe abortions under the MTP Act.

The Marital Rape Debate

A landmark Supreme Court judgment in September 2022 challenged the distinction between married and unmarried women in the MTP Act. It granted judicial recognition to "marital rape" for the purposes of abortion, emphasizing the right to reproductive and decisional autonomy for women.

The Supreme Court's ruling  in this case sets an important precedent and sparks discussions about the interpretation of 'life' in the MTP Act, the rights of the pregnant woman, and the protection of foetal rights. This is not merely a legal matter; it is a profound and ethical struggle, pitting the rights of the family, the state, motherhood, and women's autonomy against one another. The netizens' reactions remind us that while laws and court rulings provide a framework, the human touch and understanding must remain at the heart of these decisions.


Suggest reading: Every Indian Has An Obligation To Consider Family Planning, Says SC

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