The Supreme Court has done well to rule that an adult woman had an unimpeachable right to give birth or terminate pregnancy.
In a case which involved a woman’s husband reaching the court to declare her decision to abort as illegal, an SC bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice A M Khanwilkar and Justice D Y Chandrachud asserted that no express or implied consent of the husband is required for getting pregnancy terminated under the (Medical Termination of Pregnancy) Act.
The CJI-headed bench further fortified the HC ruling by adding, ‘She is a mother and an adult who says she did not want the pregnancy. How can she or others be made liable for it? Even a mentally challenged woman has a right to terminate her pregnancy. How can parents and doctors be made liable?’
Kudos to the Supreme Court for saying this, as the message has to go to the larger public that a woman’s body is eventually her property and what she does to it is nobody else’s business.
This apart, the increasing number of pregnant women knocking the doors of the courts for permission to allow abortion in cases of over 20-weeks’ foetus, clearly indicates now that the time has come to initiate changes in the existing Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, which was passed nearly five decades ago when abortion was legal in only 15 other countries.
Enacted in 1971, the MTP Act currently allows abortions for pregnancies up to 20 weeks, but the Centre has had a proposal to extend the limit to 24 weeks in the pipeline, since 2014. Surprisingly, the Supreme Court dealt with more than 15 such cases, with some sort of fixed course of action: To constitute a special medical board of top doctors at once and then allow or reject the plea on the basis of the board’s reports.
Though the Centre has made an amendment to the MTP Act asking to increase the present 20-week limit to 24 weeks, it has also asked to allow practitioners of alternative medicine such as AYUSH to carry out abortions through non-surgical methods. And, since the credibility of practitioners of alternative medicine is always in doubt, the possibility of the misuse of the law by them cannot be ruled out.
There is a legitimate concern about sex-selective abortions. But, to limit abortion rights to fix the sex ratio is always a defective strategy. It seems that in order for us to extend the benefits of the MTP Act to women, it is essential to enforce certain measures apart from passing the suggested amendments to the Act.
It is also needed to make people aware of the MTP guidelines, ensuring that issues related to spousal consent and stereotypes about women’s primary role as mothers do not reappear. Time has come to slot such issues into medical curriculum, police training, and school education.
Without proper communication about abortion and the Acts related to it, maintaining women’s autonomy and bodily integrity would remain a mirage for society. We need to promote gender balance in society, but not at the cost of women’s reproductive rights.