Should a woman or worse, a child, have to turn to the Supreme Court to access an abortion? Should a person waste life-altering weeks in pursuit of what ought to be an easily accessible right? In recent months, it would appear that the apex court has too frequently been put in the position of having to decide—case by case—on whether a person should be able to get an abortion. Finally, in August, the Centre told the court it had written to all the states asking that permanent medical boards be set up to look into requests for abortions over the legally permitted 20 weeks. It is this term limit that has pushed some women to the courts and many others to seek abortions from quacks.
The Centre has a draft bill that would overhaul the 1971 Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act by extending the term limit to 24 weeks. This has reportedly been held up after the Sangli abortion racket came to light, with the government wanting loopholes plugged before moving forward with legislation that would also widen the range of professionals who can provide abortions. In the meantime, it is unquestionable that women, including rape survivors, are suffering. Even within the legally-permitted window, getting a safe abortion can be difficult in India. Unmarried women can face judgment and refusal of services from doctors, especially as they practice in the shadow of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act. Awareness of abortion’s legality too appears limited. Worse, in some states, the emergency pill is not easily available. The reproductive rights of women in India are constrained by the law, by medical professionals with antiquated notions and by limited access to medical facilities offering services.
The Centre needs to move forward with the proposed legislation in a timely manner. In the meantime, states need to move quickly to set up medical boards that can assess abortion requests. Further, medical professionals need to be sensitised to the need of removing moral judgment and put the needs of the woman first.