Following the Bombay high court ruling in the Niketa Mehta case on whether or not a 25-week-old foetus can be aborted when the unborn child faces serious health risks, the debate has turned emotional. It appears that much of the debate, under the weight of emotion, is overlooking certain key issues.
A widely held view is that this case exposed a big chink in the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act as the Act allows for termination of a foetus more than 20 weeks old only in cases of danger to the mother’s health and disregards the risks to the unborn child. While, prima facie, this may appear to be true, the issue is closely linked to that of euthanasia or mercy killing, though the linkage may not be so obvious.
Here are some FAQs relating to the ethics of abortion. When does a foetus become a “proper human baby”? At 20 weeks? 25 weeks? 28 weeks? Is a baby a baby only if it is outside its mother’s womb — is it a “baby” even if it is inside the womb (say, a 20+, 25+ or 28+ week foetus)? If killing a real baby is murder, should it matter if the “baby” is inside or outside the womb? If a baby is born with serious health risks, can its life be terminated as in euthanasia? If euthanasia is illegal, wouldn’t terminating the life of such a baby also be illegal, irrespective of whether the baby is outside or inside the womb? Even if the definition of a proper human baby is taken as 25+week foetus, after the 25th week, wouldn’t abortion on the grounds of health risks to the foetus (a “proper baby” by now) also be illegal?
The issues are complex because today’s neo-natal technology can deliver a 26-week foetus and ensure it a proper life. Thus, while we may debate the abortion of a 26-week-old foetus, what if a doctor were to deliver the premature baby through a Caesarean section and place the baby in a life-saving incubator? Will the life of such a child be allowed to be terminated on the grounds of health risk when euthanasia is illegal?
These questions will remain valid even if the assumed loophole in the MTP Act were to be plugged. This is because underlying the MTP Act is an implied agreement that after 20 weeks, the foetus is akin to a human baby. Extending this period to 25 weeks, or even 28 weeks, does not solve the dilemma. In a country this big, there will always be babies which breach the set mark by, let us say, one day. Thus, if MTP were disallowed on whatever grounds after, say, 25 weeks, what does one do in a case of a foetus which is 25 weeks + 1 day old and found to have health risk? If this foetus were acceptable for MTP being so close to 25 weeks, what about a foetus that is 25 weeks + 2 days old? One could keep stretching this argument.
The only resolution to such an issue is that once the law fixes a certain period, that should be sacrosanct, independent of emotions. Nobody ever said life is always fair. Nor can fairness be restored with emotive knee-jerk reactions to such instances.
Even if we were to agree with Bill Clinton that a decision such as this ought to be between “the woman, her doctor, her conscience and her God”, the fact is that as long as mercy killing does not become legal, the issue in question cannot really be resolved between “the mother, her doctor, her conscience and her God”. We can only hope that some day science will be able to diagnose the health risks of an unborn baby at, say, only 10 to 15 weeks.
V. Raghunathan is CEO, GMR Varalakshmi Foundation. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org