New Delhi: The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has told the Supreme Court that a pregnant woman’s right to abort is not “absolute”, while making clear the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) (Amendment) Bill, 2019 shall make legal access “easier for vulnerable women” desiring terminations.
The union health ministry’s reply, a copy of which has been accessed by ThePrint, was made in reference to a petition filed by Dr Nikhil Datar who has sought to raise the time period for terminating pregnancy from the current cap of 20 weeks to 26 weeks. Filed in 2009, it has challenged the constitutional validity of the aged and outdated MTP Act, 1971. Among other things, the plea has sought for a “liberalisation of the existing provisions” relating to abortions.
The MTP Act, 1971, states that pregnancies can be terminated under certain conditions — such as risk to the life of a pregnant woman or cause grave injury to her physical and mental health — and when provided by a registered medical practitioner at a registered medical facility.
Datar’s petition also seeks termination of pregnancies after 20 weeks in case of serious abnormalities in the foetus.
The Centre’s reply, filed on 11 September, had called upon the Supreme Court to junk Datar’s plea as “premature” and argued that it was the government’s duty to protect a mother and her unborn child. A woman, therefore, has no absolute right to terminate her pregnancy, it said.
A bench of Justices Deepak Gupta and Aniruddha Bose indicated Wednesday that it was not inclined to legislate on the issue of raising the current ceiling of 20 weeks for abortion as stipulated in the MTP Act, 1971. However, it would formulate guidelines for the same. The matter has now been posted for 24 September.
Advocate Sneha Mukherjee, appearing for the petitioner, said, “States should also acknowledge that women’s decisions about their own bodies are personal and private. It is imperative to place the autonomy of the woman at the centre of policy and law-making related to sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion care.”
The health ministry, in the meanwhile, also said the new MTP Bill would “address” all concerns of the petitioner. The MTP (Amendment) Bill, 2019 is currently pending with the law ministry for vetting.
Before the Centre’s reply, the NGO ‘Life for All’ — which is a party to the case — also objected to the petition stating that mental anguish and pain for women delivering babies with abnormalities was less compared to ones who chose to abort them.
In its reply on 2 September, which has been accessed by ThePrint, the NGO states: “Pregnant women who chose to carry the pregnancy to term were able to better cope with the loss, mental anguish and trauma as compared to women who chose to terminate the pregnancy.”
The NGO, based out of Tamil Nadu, also makes a case by stating that an unborn child does not have the capacity to defend itself from “harm” that could be inflicted by its mother.
“Personal freedom or choice of an individual cannot curtail the freedom or choice of other individuals, especially the most vulnerable and persons who are defenseless. Unborn child cannot protect itself from the harm designed by his or her very own mother,” states the NGO’s affidavit.
Like the Centre, the NGO too argued that the state is a “guardian” of foetuses that have crossed the 20-week ceiling.