In July 2008, Malad-based gynecologist and obstetrician Dr Nikhil Datar set out on a legal journey with his patient Niketa Mehta and her husband Haresh. Then 24-weeks pregnant, Niketa, an English teacher, and Haresh, a chartered accountant, were to take a local train from Bhyandar to come to the Bombay High Court near Churchgate, for they were sure they did not want to bring their child, diagnosed with a congenital complete heart block, into this world.
Datar and the Mehtas had then, for the first time, made a case for an amendment in the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971.
Niketa, past her 20th week of pregnancy, had sought permission from the HC to abort her child, which at the time was not permissible. The couple, leading a quiet, middle-class life in a distant suburb of Mumbai, had overnight hit national headlines and become the subject of television debates.
The HC had asked doctors to examine if Niketa’s was a case fit for abortion, but later said it was for the legislature to amend the law.
Niketa, who lost her battle in court, eventually lost her child to a miscarriage. But Datar carried the legal battle to the Supreme Court, seeking an increase in the upper limit for termination of a pregnancy from 20 weeks to 24 weeks.
He was in Lucknow on Wednesday when he came to know about the Union Cabinet clearing the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020, allowing abortion till the 24th week of pregnancy and putting no cap on aborting a foetus diagnosed with severe abnormality by a medical board.
“The 12-year-long battle has paid off. So many women were willing to walk up to the court in the face of trauma and fight for their rights. It was a collective effort,” Datar, now the medical director of Cloud Nine hospital in Mumbai, said. He, however, is disappointed at the time it took the government to amend the law.
“Till 2016, the legal system was very slow. After that, the court and the government decided to speed up this issue,” Datar said. Since 2017, when
the Supreme Court allowed high courts to pass orders for pregnancy termination based on the opinion of medical committees, Datar said 180 such applications have been filed across India. “In most cases, I was involved,” he added.
Datar was also a member of the state committee, which in 2017 had formulated guidelines on abortion once the HC permitted termination due to foetus anomaly.
A 32-year-old Powai resident, who underwent abortion following a court order earlier this month, wished that this had happened sooner. “We spent 10 days running to court and hospitals, and faced the trauma of not knowing what the court would decide,” the woman, who works in the IT sector, said.
She had married her 37-year-old husband seven years ago. In the last two years, the couple attempted to conceive and she became pregnant last year. Late December, in the 21st week of pregnancy, their child was diagnosed with skeletal dysplasia — a condition that affected brain and spinal cord development.
“We had no option but to abort. Such a rare condition does not get easily diagnosed in the 18th or 19th week of pregnancy. But we were told we will have to approach the court to abort our baby,” she told The Indian Express.
In January, the couple filed an application before the Bombay High Court. After undergoing a battery of tests at J J hospital, after 10 days, the HC allowed her to terminate her pregnancy. “But those 10 days were traumatic. I could not tell people what was going on. It was my first pregnancy… I am happy that such a move has been made now.”
Section 3 of Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, capped the abortion limit at 20 weeks. Under Section 5, a woman could undergo abortion beyond 20 weeks only if her life was endangered by pregnancy. But there remained no provision for foetuses that were diagnosed with severe life threatening defects. Most birth defects are diagnosed between 16 to 18 weeks of pregnancy. But some anomalies of the brain and spine can be detected only after 20 weeks.
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