Late abortion is not murder4 min read . Updated: 29 Jul 2016, 01:28 AM IST
The Supreme Court's scientific approach towards late abortion can help lessen the anxieties around it
Earlier this week, the Indian Supreme Court delivered a first-of-its-kind verdict. It allowed an alleged rape survivor to terminate a pregnancy that had progressed beyond 20 weeks after noting that the woman’s life could be in danger.
The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act of 1971 makes abortion legal till 20 weeks. The Mumbai-based petitioner had raised the issue on the basis of medical tests that gave clear indications that her foetus suffered multiple congenital abnormalities and would be born without parts of the brain and the spinal cord. This conclusion was arrived at by a medical board comprising seven doctors of Mumbai’s KEM Hospital. This board warned of psychological and physical trauma for the mother if the pregnancy continued.
The petitioner was given the benefit of the provisions made in the draft Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill of 2014, which considers abortion after 20 weeks under exceptional circumstances. The draft bill also recognizes the anguish caused to a woman pregnant from rape, considering it a valid ground for abortion.
The case itself may be one of many, given that rape-related pregnancies being secretively aborted beyond 20 weeks in small, shady medical centres are not uncommon in India. As is brutal and unjust late termination of pregnancy for reasons of sex determination. But the apex court’s verdict has many significant resonances.
One, it upholds the right of a rape victim, a single woman deserted by a man who had promised to marry her (and allegedly raped her) to petition for her medical and psychological rights. India remains largely unkind and unfair to rape victims, but this decision will hopefully signal a liberal view towards a person who understands her choices and insists on making them.
Two, it takes a scientific approach towards technologically advanced prenatal diagnosis for the evaluation of foetus health. It has been determined earlier that the foetus becomes a “life" after 20 weeks. At the same time, it is only after 18 weeks that foetal abnormalities show up and can be caught in tests. The draft provisions of the MTP (Amendment) Bill of 2014 which allow abortion after 24 weeks take into account these medical realities. Even though the apex court remarked that it was a matter of “life versus life", its decision in favour of the woman is a pragmatic, life-affirming verdict—instead of one based on moral and sentimental considerations.
Abortion is seen as a complex and thorny socio-political subject with religious and moral dimensions in almost all countries. Its legality is like a double-edged sword because of the misuse it can and does unleash. An issue of feminist and humanist rights, it also gets invariably mixed with cultural attitudes, family superstitions and moral tugs of war. Even women who wish to abort (within the legally allowed 20 weeks) are not viewed kindly. They are stalked by judgement even if the decision to abort stems from the husband’s choice. Many Indian couples hide abortions from family elders for fear of moral judgement. India has perhaps the highest number of abortions related to female foeticide and sex determination, but making an elective choice to abort a baby (considered God’s own blessing) for the mother’s comfort and readiness or a couple’s financial situation is eyed with scepticism, even seen as sin.
Besides that, very few Indians discuss abortion openly even today. There is a cloak of silence around it, much more than sex, pornography or extramarital dating websites considered “modern" and “liberal" topics of discussion in what we call New India.
I can’t remember any significant conversation on abortion even with close female friends and, frankly, have never broached it with any male friend with whom I may share other personal confidences. Our society is more accepting of a confessional culture about relationships, addictions, obsessions, even failure and depression, but women rarely “confess" to abortion. A counsellor I once interviewed on psychological stresses of working women, told me how many Indian women are wracked by guilt over abortion and how they must deal with their feelings in the dark dungeons of their own minds, with little support from family.
The Supreme Court’s verdict, however, has thrown abortion once again out there. To be dealt with as a pro-choice issue, backed by legality and scientific temper. Last year, a 14-year-old rape victim from Gujarat had also petitioned for a similar permission—to be allowed to abort after 20 weeks. The Supreme Court granted it but listed the case as “special", given her juvenile status. Which meant it cannot be used as a legal precedent to decide other cases.
But the Mumbai petitioner’s case will become a good precedent. And not just for rape victims. Besides the legal clarity the judgement offers, I hope it helps young women grappling with these questions feel less anxious about abortion as a moral crime.