Two women from Maharashtra are set to petition the Supreme Court, seeking to abort their foetuses after the 20-week gestation period. With this, the number of cases in the state where pregnant women are approaching the apex court for medical termination of pregnancy has crossed at least a dozen this year, highlighting the urgent need to either amend the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971 or formulate a board to tackle such instances.
Section 3 of the MTP Act caps abortion limit at 20 weeks. Diagnostic tests of both the women have shown anomalies in the hearts of the foetuses. A 28-year-old woman from Jogeshwari in Mumbai detected the anomaly on October 11 when she underwent a routine sonography test. The chawl resident is 22 weeks pregnant.
In the second case, a Pune resident, aged 25 years, detected the birth defect in the 25th week of gestation. “In both cases, the petition will be filed this week. We are in the process of documentation of their medical records,” said lawyer Sneha Mukherjee. The long weekend due to Diwali has prolonged the process for the women.
Mukherjee added that between January and March this year, four women from Maharashtra approached the Supreme Court seeking to medically terminate their pregnancies. The court denied permission in two cases observing that the pregnancies were at an advanced stage – beyond 26 weeks.
Between April and October this year, 12 more cases have come up, including the latest ones from Jogeshwari and Pune.
In several of these cases, records show, the women had delayed access to abortion services. “One of the women to approach the Supreme Court detected birth anomaly at 18 weeks of gestation. But by the time she could travel from rural region to the city to seek termination, she had already crossed 20-weeks pregnancy,” Mukherjee said.
According to gynaecologist Dr Nikhil Datar, lack of awareness about timely diagnostic tests also leads to a situation where birth defects in pregnancies are noticed at a delayed stage. Datar has filed a petition to extend the 20-week deadline to 24 weeks stating that several birth anomalies are detected after 20 weeks of gestation.
Many gynaecologists also pointed out that the deadline for abortion in cases of suspected anomalies in foetuses makes the decision making procedure tougher for couples. Sometimes, couples have to wait for confirmatory tests that can take pregnancy beyond 20 weeks of gestation.
In July, the apex court asked the central government to set up medical boards to tackle such cases until an amendment to this effect is made in the law. Subsequently, the Centre has written to all state and Union Territories to set up permanent medical boards to review abortion cases beyond 20 weeks.
“The medical board has been set up. Supreme Court will refer cases to us. Instead of the Supreme Court appointing a medical college to submit medical report on pregnant women, following which it will take its decision, the case will be directly referred to us to take decision on individual abortion,” said Dr Pravin Shingare, the director of the Directorate of Medical Education and Research.
The board is yet to review abortion cases where the mother is either a rape victim or suffers from anomalies in the foetus.