By Jonathan Abbamonte, Population Research Institute
The Government of India is set to introduce a bill in the national Parliament that would legalize abortion up to birth for unborn children with “substantial foetal abnormalities.” The bill would also change the legal limit for abortion from 20 weeks to 24 weeks for “survivors of rape, victims of incest and other vulnerable women,” including minors and women with mental disabilities.
The bill would also remove a requirement in Indian law requiring there to be two consenting doctors to approve an abortion after 12 weeks. The bill would make it so that only one doctor would be required to approve an abortion up to 20 weeks.
By 20 weeks gestation, a baby can already stretch and move around and make sucking motions. Research shows substantial evidence that an unborn baby can feel pain by 20 weeks.
Currently, abortion in India is illegal after 20 weeks and legal after that point only in dire cases to save the life of the mother.
The abortion bill has gained approval at the highest levels of the Indian government. The bill is being introduced by the Union Cabinet, a high-level committee of the prime minister’s cabinet composed of the top ranking ministers in the Indian government. The Union Cabinet is chaired by India Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Indian government has made clear that the abortion bill is intended to not only expand access to abortion, but to expand the utilization of abortion for eugenic purposes. The government’s objective in introducing the bill is “for expanding access of women to safe and legal abortion services on therapeutic, eugenic, humanitarian or [sic] social grounds,” according to an official news update posted on the website of the office of the prime minister.
The abortion bill, titled the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020, is set to be introduced in Parliament soon.
Christian bishops in India have blasted the government’s abortion bill, calling on Members of Parliament to oppose the measure.
“If the government aims a progressive reform through this, they should clarify what development they aim to bring in by killing innocent babies,” said an official spokesperson for the Synodal Commission of the Syro-Malabar Church, an ancient Eastern Syriac Church in India, according to the New Indian Express.
The decision by the Cabinet to move on the bill is baffling as the government just last September, in a staunchly-worded statement, defended India’s 20-week abortion limit in case being argued before the Indian Supreme Court over whether to allow an abortion for a woman pregnant at 26 weeks.
In an affidavit [https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/ceiling-of-20-weeks-for-abortion-cant-be-extended-centre-to-sc/articleshow/71189677.cms] sent to the court, the government argued that the “right to reproductive autonomy does not outweigh the interest of the state in protecting the life of foetus in the womb, especially from the point of viability i.e., from the period of 20 weeks onwards” and that “personal freedom of choice of an individual cannot curtail the freedom or choice of other individuals, [e]specially the most vulnerable and persons who are defenseless.”
Abortion has long been legal in India. In 1971, India became one of the first developing countries in the world to legalize abortion under a law titled the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 (a.k.a. the “MTP Act”)—a full two years before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in the U.S. in its infamous Roe v. Wade decision. The Indian government in 1971 had legalized abortion up to 20 weeks under broad socioeconomic grounds, including physical and mental health of the mother, in cases of fetal disability, in cases of rape, and in cases of contraceptive failure.
With the introduction of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020, however, the Indian government is now claiming that it is necessary to legalize abortion up to 24 weeks in cases of rape, incest, minors, and women with disabilities in order to reduce maternal mortality due to “unsafe” abortions.
In an op-ed that appeared in the Times of India, Smriti Irani, Minister of Textiles and Minister of Women & Child Development, and a member of the Union Cabinet that is responsible for introducing the abortion bill, argued that legalizing abortion up to 24 weeks is necessary to “reduce maternal mortality and morbidity arising out of unsafe abortions.”
The Minister claimed that the 1971 MTP Act is outdated as medical technology has developed since the early 1970s, including with methods such as “abortion pills and vacuum aspiration” which she argues allow for “safer abortions in advanced stages of pregnancy.”
However, Minister Irani’s claims are misleading as it is rare for abortionists to use abortion pills after 20 weeks in contexts where abortion is legal due to the “risk” that the child could in some instances be born alive. The technological development of the abortion pill will have no effect on abortions performed after 20 weeks as the abortion bill proposes to legalize.
Union Minister Irani, in her op-ed, also cited a study from the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics which claims that deaths from “unsafe” abortion constitutes 10-13% of all maternal deaths in India. However, the study from the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics was merely citing yet another study that was published in 2014 in PLoS One.
However, the 2014 PLoS One study found that only 9% of women in the study died due both to induced abortions and natural miscarriages combined, a far cry from the false claim that 10-13% of Indian maternal deaths are due to “unsafe” abortion alone.
There is no evidence that changing the legal limit for abortion in India from 20 weeks to 24 weeks will make abortion any “safer.” The overwhelming majority of abortions take place within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. India’s high induced abortion mortality rate has little to nothing to do with abortion not being legal after 20 weeks. It has much more to do with the fact that most abortions in India are either self-inflicted through the use of abortion pills, carried out in a private doctor’s office, or are carried out by unqualified providers.
A widely-cited study published in The Lancet in 2018 found that 91% of abortions using the pill were either from private doctor’s offices or self-inflicted, and that 2.4 surgical abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age were neither performed at public nor private clinics with basic operating theater capacity.
As for abortions being “unsafe,” abortion is always unsafe for the unborn child who is always killed as a result of the procedure.
According to the 2018 Lancet study, there were an estimated 5.6 million abortions committed in India in 2015. If abortion in India is legalized up to 24 weeks in certain cases and up to birth in cases of fetal disability, the number of abortions will likely climb higher still.
Over the past few years, India’s courts have taken up a slew of abortion cases addressing the question of whether abortion should be permitted after the 20-week limit in cases of rape, and where the unborn child has a disability or deformity.
In 2016, the Supreme Court of India breached the MTP Act’s 20-week abortion limit for a specific case where it approved of an abortion for a woman who was allegedly raped by her ex-boyfriend and pregnant with a 24-week old child with severe congenital defects.
In 2017, the Supreme Court suspended the law’s 20-week limit multiple times, allowing a woman to abort at 23 weeks gestation and, in another case, permitting an abortion for a Mumbai woman pregnant with a 24-week old child with anencephaly. Anencephaly, a rare birth defect where the child is born missing parts of the brain and skull, is usually fatal for the infant soon after birth, though there are several known cases where a child born with anencephaly goes on to live for years after birth.
However, the Supreme Court has also upheld the 20-week limit in cases with unborn children diagnosed with non-fatal congenital abnormalities. In 2017, the Supreme Court denied a woman’s petition to abort her 26-week old child with Down Syndrome. According to the Indian Express, the Supreme Court denied the woman’s request, because, in the words of the court, “We have a life in our hands.”
Courts in India have also denied requests for abortion of unborn children diagnosed with fatal congenital abnormalities if the pregnancy is too far along. In 2018, a Mumbai High Court denied a woman’s request for abortion at 31 weeks even though the child had been diagnosed with a severe life-threatening neurological abnormality.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Delhi High Court in December 2018 gave authorization for an abortion for a 16-year-old victim of rape pregnant at 22 weeks, even despite warnings from the medical board at the hospital where the abortion was requested that an abortion at that late stage of development would be a risk to the mother’s health. In 2019, the same Delhi court also permitted a woman to abort her child at 25 weeks, after being diagnosed with a congenital abnormality. And the High Court in West Bengal last year gave the authorization for a woman to abort her child at 29 weeks gestation after being diagnosed with Down Syndrome.