The recent landmark judgment given by the Supreme Court of India allowing a woman to terminate her 24-week old pregnancy has opened up the doors of discussion on obsolete pregnancy laws, need to increase awareness about abortion and change the pregnancy laws as well as end stigma prevalent in the country. On Monday, Supreme Court relaxed the 20-week legal ceiling on abortion, allowing a woman to abort her 24-week baby diagnosed with Anencephaly, a life-threatening congenital defect in which a baby is born without the parts of the brain, skull and scalp.
India’s Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act legalises abortions upto 20 weeks only under certain circumstances such as threat to mother’s or child’s physical or mental health or if the unborn baby is diagnosed with severe physical or mental abnormalities or both.
As per the data revealed by the Union Ministry of Health & Welfare and World Health Organisation, there are 56 million induced abortions in the world every year from which around 22 million are unsafe abortions. The practice leads to 47,000 deaths and an estimated 5 million women develop some form of disability. In India, 10 women are killed everyday due to abortions as an estimated 6.8 million choose unsafe methods of abortion due to lack of knowledge and laws. Being responsible for 8% of the overall maternal deaths, unsafe abortions is the third biggest reason of the women dying due to child-birth related causes in India. Lack of skilled medical staff is also another big reason for women falling to the prey of unhealthy abortion practices. The weak and marginalised section of the society suffers the most due to lack of knowledge and stigma associated with the medical practice.
“Vulnerable groups including women with disabilities or mental health problems, rape and incest survivors and widows and single women who may need more support because of the tremendous social stigma may prevent them from seeking legal abortion services in the early stage of pregnancy”, says Mumbai-based Dr. Nozer Sheriar, former secretary-general of FOGSI (Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecologist Societies of India), who was also part of the Union Health Ministry’s expert panel that drafted the amendments.
Looking at the appalling figures and gaps observed in abortion laws, the Union Health Ministry has proposed certain amendments from relaxation in law to increasing the number of skilled workforce. “The amendments are women-centric as opposed to the provider-centric provisions in the MTP Act. The proposed bill aims to give each woman control over decision-making related to her life and body,” said a Union Health Ministry official.
The key changes proposed by the expert panel recommends widening the network of service providers through training so that nurses, village health workers and Auxiliary nursery midwives (ANMs), ayurveda, unani and homeopathy practitioners can use the medical methods to terminate the pregnancies by relaxing the norms from 20-week to 24-week for the “vulnerable” groups who may have delayed in seeking services due to lack of knowledge or stigma. After the completed training, the ANMs can terminate pregnancies upto 7 weeks, nurses and alternative practitioners upto 9 weeks through drugs. However, the surgical abortions can only be done by the registered physicians.
Other proposed amendments include the inclusion of confidentiality clause which will be helpful for the PROCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, which requires all the pregnancies involving minors should be reported to the police. The clause under the Act states that minors need consent from their guardian before seeking abortion. It also recommends to change the restrictive terminologies and make a uniform law for “women” irrespective of their marital status and changing the preference from “husband” to “partners”.
Fiinovation also supports the proposed amendments as they are in-line with the changing scenarios and will provide incredible benefits to women in advancing their rights on their own bodies and health. The lack of support and relaxation in norms have often forced women to resort to desperate measures falling to unsafe abortion methods leading to numerous health problems.
By Manisha Bhatia
Media & Communications, Fiinovation