The liberalisation of abortion rules in tune with the medical advancements and reproductive rights of women has been long overdue. The Centre’s latest move to amend a 50-year-old Act to allow abortion beyond 20 weeks in special cases is progressive and prudent. The 1971 Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, which imposes a 20-week limit beyond which abortion is prohibited, was anachronistic and out of sync with the 21st century realities. Moreover, it was an infringement on the bodily autonomy of women and the choices they need to make. The passage of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill in Parliament must be welcomed by all as it recognises women’s right over their bodies and gives them greater power to choose. Under the new legislation, abortion can take place in cases where the pregnancy exceeds 20 weeks if it involves risk of life to the pregnant woman or of grave injury to her physical or mental health, or there is a substantial risk that the baby will have serious congenital disabilities. Unfortunately, the women’s right to access to safe abortion care has long been ignored by policymakers. The 1971 Act, a restrictive and regressive law, had proved tragic in many cases. Several petitions have been filed before the Supreme Court and various high courts seeking permission to abort pregnancies beyond 20 weeks in the case of foetal abnormalities or pregnancies due to rape. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the incidence of unsafe abortions is significantly higher in developing countries with highly restrictive abortion laws, compared with the developed countries.
As per the original law, if a minor wants to terminate her pregnancy, written consent from the guardian was mandatory. The new legislation has done away with this provision. According to nationwide rural health statistics, there is a 75% shortage of qualified gynaecologists and obstetricians in community health clinics in rural areas across India. This will seriously limit the access of women to safe abortion services. Apart from improving healthcare facilities, there is a need to provide a legal support structure for millions of women who do not have access to safe abortion and related care. Though abortion is acknowledged as an important aspect of the reproductive health of women, very few countries like China, Russia, Canada, Australia and South Africa permit abortion on request, mostly up to 12 weeks. As many as 26 countries do not permit abortion while 39 others permit medical termination of pregnancy when the woman’s life is at risk. Ove 40% of women of reproductive age live in 125 countries with highly restrictive abortion laws — prohibited altogether, or allowed only to save a woman’s life or to protect her health.
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