In a landmark judgement on Monday, the Supreme Court allowed an alleged rape victim to terminate her 24-week-old abnormal foetus. The court took into consideration the report of the medical board of a Mumbai hospital stating that the continuance of the pregnancy would gravely endanger the physical and mental health of the mother. Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi said that there is a provision in the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 which allows the termination of pregnancy after 24 weeks if there is a threat to the life of the mother.
The apex court had earlier sought a reply from the Centre and the Maharashtra government on the plea of the alleged rape survivor, who has also challenged the Constitutional validity of provisions of the abortion law which prohibits termination of pregnancy after 20 weeks even if there is a fatal risk to the mother and the foetus. Doctors had earlier refused to grant the rape victim an abortion, even though the child has anencephaly or absence of the brain and will not survive. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act only allows abortion if the doctors are of the opinion that continuing the pregnancy involves substantial mental and physical health risks for the mother or the foetus has serious health defects. As per the law, grave mental health risks include pregnancy caused by rape or a contraception failure for a married woman.
Although the rape victim, who filed a petition in the apex court, fits the bill for an abortion, she was tied down by bureaucratic delays and the gross inadequacies of the public health system. The victim had filed a first information report with the police when she was only 17 weeks pregnant. An amendment to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act proposed by the Modi government in 2014 included increasing the time limit for terminating a pregnancy from 20 to 24 weeks. Despite popular opinion, some gynaecologists have argued that the health risks associated with abortions do not increase whether the pregnancy is 20 weeks or 24 weeks old. Although many doctors favour this amendment, social activists have raised a red flag against possible sex-selective abortions. If the amendment comes into force, these activists feel that the number of sex-selective abortions would just increase.
Of course, no one is advocating blanket permission for women who want to terminate a pregnancy over 20 weeks. In her petition to the apex court, the rape victim has also sought an order for the Centre to provide necessary directions to hospitals for setting up an expert panel of doctors to assess the pregnancy and offer medical termination of pregnancy (MTP) at least to those women and girls who are survivors of sexual violence and have passed the period of 20 weeks. The debate isn’t over. Watch this space for more.