• Recently, the Supreme Court of India allowed an unmarried woman to end her pregnancy at 24 weeks, after the Delhi High Court refused to allow it, citing the provisions of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act.
  • It taken the view that she was unmarried and since the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act allowed only married women to terminate the pregnancy after 20 weeks, she would not be eligible to get an abortion,
  • It mentioned Rule 3B of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Rules, 2003, as it speaks of change in marital status of woman, as the woman was in a live-in relationship and was not married.

Supreme Court’s Ruling

  • It took an expansive view of the issue and interpreted MTP Act 2021, as the word partner instead of husband, exhibiting the intention of the law of the land to not confine it to only marital relationships.
  • It also said that the petitioner cannot be denied the benefit of the law, on the ground that she was unmarried, and that doing so would be contrary to the ‘object and spirit’ of the legislation.
  • Further, the bench directed the director of the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) to set up a medical board of two doctors to examine the woman (as per the provisions of the MTP Act) to determine if it was safe and not a risk to the life of the mother to terminate the pregnancy.
  • If it is their opinion that it is safe to do so, then AIIMS can conduct the procedure on her.

India’s Abortion Law

  • Until the 1960s, abortion was illegal in India and a woman could face three years of imprisonment and/or a fine under Section 312 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
  • It was in the mid-1960s that the government set up the Shantilal Shah Committee and asked the group, headed by DrShantilal Shah, to look into the matter of abortions and decide if India needed a law for the same.
  • Based on the report of the Shantilal Shah Committee, a medical termination bill was introduced in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha and was passed by Parliament in August 1971.
  • The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971 came into force on 1st of April 1972 and applied to all of India except the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
  • Also, Section 312 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, criminalises voluntarily “causing miscarriage” even when the miscarriage is with the pregnant woman’s consent, except when the miscarriage is caused to save the woman’s life.
  • This means that the woman herself, or anyone else including a medical practitioner, could be prosecuted for an abortion.

Issues Related To TheMtp Act

  • While the law recognizes changes in a pregnant woman’s marital status with her spouses — such as divorce and widowhood — it does not address the situation for unmarried women.
  • It is a highly regulated procedure whereby the law transfers the decision-making power from the pregnant woman to the Recognized Medical Practitioner (RMP) and provides great discretion to the RMP to determine whether abortion should be provided or not. 

Way Forward

  • India’s legal framework on abortion is largely considered progressive, especially in comparison to many countries including the United States where abortion restrictions are severely restricted — both historically, and at present.
  • Further, there is a need for a serious rethink in public policy making, also accommodating all the stakeholders to focus on women and their reproductive rights, rather than drawing red lines those medical practitioners cannot cross while performing abortions.


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