Abortion in India: The MTP Act
I’ve always found a certain irony in the idea that India, with the second largest population in the world, is unwilling to consider the feasibility of abortion, and its consequent effect on reducing population growth. The restrictions in the MTP Act, 1971, make it appear as if the freedom of reproductive choice and bodily autonomy of women, is just as undermined as the need for population control.
Abortion is the deliberate termination of a human pregnancy, most often performed during the first 28 weeks of pregnancy. India is one of the 63 countries out of the world’s 195 wherein abortion is legal- with certain conditions attached.
There are two methods commonly employed to terminate a pregnancy: a) In-clinic abortions, and b) abortion pill (medication). In-clinic abortions work by using a suction to remove the pregnancy from a woman’s uterus. This is an extremely effective method. ‘Abortion pill’ is the household name for using two different medications to end a pregnancy: mifepristone and misoprostol. The effectiveness of this method depends on how far along one is in one’s pregnancy. It can be
used upto 10 weeks from the first day of the woman’s last period. It is advisable to not consume these drugs without prior approval of a medical practitioner. The kind of abortion a woman chooses relies completely on her preferences, and the country she resides in. In India, a woman can get an abortion using either of the two methods.
However, both these methods fall under the purview of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, which is “An Act to provide for the termination of certain pregnancies by registered medical practitioners and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” This states that a legal abortion can be performed only under four conditions:
If continuation of the pregnancy poses any risks to the life of the mother or to her physical or mental health;
If the fetus has any severe abnormalities;
If pregnancy occurred as a result of failure of contraception (but this is only applicable to married women);
If pregnancy is a result of sexual assault or rape
All these conditions are purely circumstantial; which means that the choice of the woman is deemed inconsequential. There are clear conflicts of logic and reason with the above conditions: if a woman can only have an abortion if there is a threat to her health; do Indian lawmakers believe that a woman can only have autonomy over her body if it is falling apart? If pregnancy resulting from rape is a condition, it is likely that the verdict of the allegation will be announced long after the pregnancy is over. Moreover, do Indian lawmakers believe a woman’s body must be violated in order for her to have autonomy over it?
In India, a woman has to provide her consent for the termination of her pregnancy before the end of 20 weeks since conception. The sign-off of one doctor is required before the period of 12 weeks, and that of two doctors is required from 12 weeks to 20 weeks. Beyond this period, a case has to be filed with the court if one wishes to seek an abortion. A minor (below 18 years of age) requires the consent of her guardian to proceed with an abortion. It is also advised to report the pregnancy under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 which “deals with sexual offences against persons below 18 years of age, who are deemed as children.”
Many myths are associated with abortion contextual to its cause-and-effect relationship with infertility, breast cancer, depression, etc. In most cases, pregnancy and childbirth are actually riskier than abortions. However, there are some risks associated with abortions like infection of the womb, some of the pregnancy remaining in the womb, excessive bleeding, and damage to the entrance of the womb (cervix). These risks increase the later in pregnancy an abortion is carried out.
An amendment to the MTP Act, 1971 was proposed in 2014 which suggests “an extension of gestation limit for conducting abortions in case of certain vulnerable categories of women, such as rape survivors, victims of incest, single (unmarried/ divorced/ widowed) and women with disabilities, and also for cases of severe fetal abnormalities, where these were detected after the existing gestation limit of 20 weeks.” If this bill passes, it will be a pivotal development for the personal rights of women all over India.
Currently, the MTP Act is ceremonial. It provides restricted and ostensible freedom-which is not freedom at all. The first step would be minimization, and if possible, removal of restrictions from the MTP Act. A step further would be elongation of the gestation period within which an abortion is permitted, regardless the circumstance.
However, an entirely leftist orientation is doubtful for the bill, given the current political situation of India. The ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party, with its extreme rightist orientation and affiliations, would only allow amendments if sufficient public support is garnered. Thus, the fate of women’s reproductive freedom rests on anyone and everyone passionate enough to change it.