[Editorial] Indian Laws on Abortion – Evolution, MTP Act, Judicial Intervention, and Criticism

The US Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, which gave women in America the right to have an abortion before the fetus is viable outside the womb or before the 24–28-week mark, in a significant step backward for women’s rights in the United States.

Quick revision mind map

How did India’s abortion laws come to be?

  • In the 1960s, in response to a high number of induced abortions, the Union government established the Shantilal Shah Committee to consider the legalization of abortion in the country.

The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act

  • The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act was enacted in 1971 in order to reduce maternal mortality due to unsafe abortions.
  • This law is an exception to the provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) 312 and 313 that govern how and when a medical abortion can be performed.

How has the MTP Act changed between 1971 and 2021?

  • The MTP Act was most recently amended in 2021. Prior to that, in 2003, new rules were enacted to allow the use of the then-newly discovered abortion drug misoprostol to medically terminate a pregnancy up to seven weeks into it.
  • In 2020, broader amendments to the original Act were introduced, and the amended Act went into effect in September 2021.

What exactly is the MTP (Amendment) Act of 2021?

  • Under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Act, 2021, abortion is permitted after medical opinion under stipulated circumstances.
  • The 2021 Act increased the upper limit of the gestation period to which a woman can seek a medical abortion to 24 weeks from 20 weeks permitted in the 1971 Act. But this renewed upper limit can only be exercised in specific cases.
  • Another major amendment was that MTP could not be accessed on the opinion of a single registered medical practitioner up to 20 weeks of the gestational age.
  • From 20 weeks up to 24 weeks, the opinion of two registered medical practitioners is required.
  • In the previous version of the Act, the opinion of a registered doctor was required to access a medical abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, while two doctors were required to endorse the abortion up to 20 weeks.

Have there been any judicial interventions in abortion cases?

  • Despite the fact that existing laws do not permit unconditional abortion in the country, in the landmark 2017 Right to Privacy judgement in the Justice K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India and others, the Supreme Court ruled that a pregnant woman’s decision to continue her pregnancy or not is part of her right to privacy, and thus her right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution.

What are the objections to the abortion law?

  • According to a 2018 Lancet study, 15.6 million abortions were performed in India in 2015.
  • The MTP Act mandates that abortions be performed only by doctors trained in gynaecology or obstetrics.
  • However, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s 2019-20 Rural Health Statistics report, there is a 70% shortage of obstetrician-gynaecologists in rural India.
  • Because the law prohibits women from having abortions at will, critics claim that it forces women to have unsafe abortions.
  • According to statistics, 8,00,000 unsafe and illegal abortions are performed in India each year, with many of them resulting in maternal mortality.

Practice Question for Mains

  1. As the law in India does not permit abortion at will, critics say that it pushes women to access illicit abortions under unsafe conditions. Discuss. (15 Marks, 250 Words).
Referred Sources

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