New Delhi: A parliamentary panel has recommended permitting abortions until 24 weeks of pregnancy and allowing unmarried women to medically terminate pregnancies, in an attempt to prevent women from turning to fake clinics that perform unsafe abortions. This would require an amendment to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act 1971.

A research paper recently published in The Lancet Global Health said a total of 15.6 million abortions were carried out in India in 2015. Of these, 11.5 million took place outside health facilities. According to the ministry of health and family welfare, abortion deaths constitute 8% of all maternal deaths per year in India.

Noting the rising incidence of unsafe abortions in India, the parliamentary panel said in its report, “A woman must seek legal recourse if the pregnancy has gone over 20 weeks to terminate the pregnancy. The judicial process is so slow that the victim’s pregnancy more often than not crosses the legal limit and she is unable to get the abortion done, thus pushing her further to the shoddy and shabby dealings of quacks in both rural and urban areas of our country."

“The committee strongly recommends the government to amend the MTP Act, 1971 to remove these weak spots and raise the permissible period of abortions to 24 weeks with this bar not applying to unborn babies having serious abnormalities. The word “married" should also be done away with so that anyone can get an abortion without having to depend on sham clinics as a last recourse," the panel said.

The committee noted that awareness about abortion is very low and about 80% of women do not know that abortion is legal in India, leading to widespread dependence on illegal service providers for termination of unwanted pregnancies. “The society and relationships of men and women in India are changing. A lot of babies in India are conceived out of wedlock; in fact, several married women also do not necessarily carry a baby of their husbands. In changing times, our laws should also be modified accordingly," said Suneeta Mittal, director and head, obstetrics and gynaecology at Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurugram. Mittal, who was also a consultant on the panel drafting the MTP Act, added that for terminating a pregnancy, a woman doesn’t need her husband’s consent.

“Women should be given equal reproductive rights. Many women are divorced, single or, in a live-in relationship. If they are living independently, they should also get freedom and an independent stance for taking a decision whether they want to deliver a baby or not. The amendment is pending for a long time and members in the committee also supported to remove the ‘married’ word," Mittal said.

The panel report said poor women and girls are not only deprived of basic sexual and reproductive health in general as they do not possess the decision-making power to deliver a baby or maintain a time gap between pregnancies, but they also have little access to safe abortion services. The committee underscored this as the prime reason for the high percentage of abortion deaths in India.The committee also recommended that the family planning programmes should spread awareness about the legal validity of the process, campaign extensively about safe abortion services available in government facilities, and that the government should also come down hard on illegal abortion clinics mushrooming in every nook and corner of society.

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