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EDITORIAL Analysis: Amendments to abortion law are welcome

Abortion Law

Approx Read Time: 5 minutes
Abortion Law

Medical Termination is prevalent in India:

  • The annual number of abortions in the country is massive — over 15 million, constituting 33% of the total annual pregnancies in the country.
  • Both in urban and rural areas, there is overwhelming reliance on medical termination (as opposed to surgical methods) by ingesting pills from a kit over one to three days.
  • In 2015, a study published in Lancet showed that a whopping 81% of women relied on medical termination.

Problems with the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP, 1971):

  • The 1971 law had forced vulnerable and traumatized women in an advanced stage of pregnancy to give birth to a compromised child or seek legal redress, an avoidable process that was fraught with delays and uncertainty.

Bill to amend Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act:

  • The cabinet has approved the Bill seeking to amend the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP, 1971), nearly half a century after it was enacted.

Change in upper limit for pregnancy termination:

  • The Bill seeks to change the upper limit for terminating special kinds of pregnancies will go up from 20 weeks to 24 weeks.
  • This is recognition that certain physical and mental conditions can only be identified after the fifth and sixth month of pregnancy.
  • Based on “foetal viability”:
    1. The upper limit is based on the yardstick of “foetal viability” — the capability of the foetus to live outside the mother’s womb.
    2. This approach is the same as that followed by seven other countries — Canada, China, the Netherlands, North Korea, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam.

Recognizes abortion rights of unmarried women also:

  • Another proposed amendment being commended is the recognition that even unmarried women are entitled to seek legal abortion — as a right.

Unwanted pregnancies mostly due to lack of awareness:

  • Failure of contraception is one valid reason to seek termination of a pregnancy.
  • However, more than the failure of contraception, the major reason for unwanted pregnancies is inadequate information about the routes of dependable contraception and care.
  • Most families in rural areas believe that sterilization is the only solution to avoid pregnancy. They do not have adequate knowledge and lack access to reversible methods like IUDs and injectables.
  • State family planning departments place too much reliance on the village level workers, ASHAs, who provide condoms and pills to village homes.
  • But there is documentary evidence that these condoms and pills are used only intermittently.

Lack of access to doctors is a barrier to safe pregnancy termination:

  • An unsafe abortion is the third most important cause of maternal mortality.
  • There are concerns about those who have no access to doctors — millions of rural women who have never had access to a safe and transparent route to abortion.
  • Victims of incest and rape have to resort to unsafe abortions to maintain secrecy and even married women become desperate to end an unwanted pregnancy for economic reasons.
  • Given the social and cultural milieu in the country, it is natural for women to rely on informal providers to access abortion pills.
  • If these pills don’t work, they try to see a doctor.
  • But there are often no doctors in rural areas, and even when the doctors available, the cost of procedure is too high for many women.

Way ahead:

  • Once the law permits abortion on demand, the service must be provided free in government-run facilities.
  • Availability of improved contraceptives and easy access to friendly and competent staff is a big gap which needs to be filled.
  • Currently, there is a shortage of trained staff and inadequate supplies of both medical kits and suction apparatus in most PHCs. This must improve for the law to be effective.
  • A directory of practitioners authorized to give prescriptions and undertake abortions at specified locations must also be freely available.
  • Once the law is amended, it will have to be explained in regional languages to increase awareness of it.

Conclusion:

  • The Constitution guarantees equal protection under law.
  • Universal access to sexual and reproductive health is embedded in the charters of the International Conference on Population and Development, 1994 and the SDGs. India is a signatory to both.
  • Unless every woman in the reproductive age group has the ability to access what the proposed law intends it will remain only a good intention.

Also Read: Extra Bytes: Fine-tuning the Surrogacy Bill

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