A landmark ruling from India’s Supreme Court in favour of a single woman’s plea to terminate her 24-week pregnancy has expanded the scope of the country’s abortion law, overruling a high court judgment that declared abortion at this stage amounts to “killing the child”.
In response to a petition filed by a Delhi-based woman who wanted to abort her pregnancy arising from a consensual relationship that no longer existed, the top court overruled the previous law that only allowed some categories of women to seek termination of pregnancy between 20 and 24 weeks.
The court has directed Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) hospital to carry out medical examinations to determine whether the pregnancy if terminated could risk the life of the woman or not, and if the doctors approve of the safety, the woman will be able to terminate her pregnancy.
The woman had filed a plea in the top court against the existing rules after she was denied an abortion because she was unmarried and her relationship status changed during the course of the pregnancy. She cited stigma around pregnancy of unmarried women in India as one of her reasons.
“Petitioner should not be denied the benefit merely on the ground that she is an unmarried woman,” the three-judge bench of the top court said.
The court said allowing the petitioner to “suffer an unwanted pregnancy” will go against the intent of the existing Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1971, which only allows termination of pregnancy for all women in the first 20 weeks, based on the opinion of a registered medical practitioner.
However, only certain categories of women are allowed termination between 20-24 weeks under certain circumstances, including survivors of sexual violence, minors and a married woman whose relationship status changes during the pregnancy.
Everyone else has the right to terminate pregnancy on will before 20 weeks in India, as per the MTP Act.
The woman approached top court after her plea was rejected on the grounds that she was not married and her relationship was consensual, with a high court judge calling the termination of pregnancy would “amount to killing of a child”.
“We will ensure that she is kept somewhere in a safe hospital and she can deliver and go. There is a big queue for adoption… Everything will be looked after by the Government of India or (the) government of Delhi or some good hospital. If the government does not pay… I am there to pay,” chief justice Satish Chandra Sharma declared.
The order created uproar in India with many women comparing it with the Roe v Wade judgement in the US that restricted abortion.