Amendments to the abortion law that would have allowed women to abort up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, besides widening the provider base, could become a casualty of an abortion racket run by a homoeopathy doctor in Maharashtra’s Sangli district.
The amended Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act proposes to extend the abortion time limit from the existing 20, and to allow practitioners of alternative medicine such as AYUSH, homoeopathy to carry out abortions through non-surgical methods.
Days after the amended Act was listed for the consideration of the Union cabinet — it was, however, not taken up — the PMO is learnt to have asked the health ministry to ensure better implementation of the MTP Act 1971 and the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994 — meant to crack down on sex-selective abortions — before attempting to amend either.
Sources said that after the Sangli incident, in which a homoeopathy doctor was caught allegedly running an illegal sex-selective abortion racket that led to the death of a woman in March, there were concerns in the PMO over whether increasing the provider base for abortions would lead to an uncontrolled rise in such incidents.
The proposed amendments had been listed for the consideration of the cabinet sometime back. The file was returned to the health ministry from the PMO.
Ballpark estimates suggested that in India, one woman dies every two hours because of unsafe abortions. Though abortions need to be reported, just about 10% of the estimated 70 lakh abortions that happen in India every year are documented. The number of documented cases in 2015, for instance, was 7.08 lakh. The rest happen in shady clinics, many of which are run by quacks, which frequently botch up the process beyond remedy.
Among the other crucial amendments that have now been put on hold is one extending the legal limit of abortion — which in fact was why the 1971 Act was first deemed inadequate. That was nine years ago.
The need for extending the 20-week legal limit for abortion was first highlighted in 2008 when Harsh and Niketa Mehta approached Bombay High Court to allow them to abort their 26-week-old foetus, which had been diagnosed with a heart defect. Permission was denied and Niketa miscarried sometime later but since then many people have approached courts for similar relaxation of norms. Some were allowed, some were not while the law itself hung fire.
Medical experts say that foetal defects may not be detected before 18 weeks and to ask prospective parents to decide on something as emotional as an abortion in the next two weeks is hardly justified. It is another reason for couples to go for abortions by unqualified practitioners.
Another important change that a new MTP Act would have brought in is that it would have ensured safe abortions for both married and single women. The health ministry had asked for the word “married” to be dropped from the law where it talks of contraceptive failure as a reason for abortion.
Meanwhile the health ministry, following longstanding demands of the medical fraternity, is also in the process of amending the PC&PNDT Act to ensure that doctors are not unjustly punished for errors in information supplied by a patient who has come for an ultrasound.
Other norms such as the need to have a physical copy of the Act on the premises or penal provisions for the doctor not wearing an apron are also in the process of being dropped. The amendments will have to be cleared by the cabinet and then passed by Parliament.
After the holding up of the MTP Act, however, there are concerns that amendments to the PC&PNDT Act, too, may take longer than planned.