Savita Halappanavar’s death in Ireland has reignited a demand in India for a change in the law that would allow a woman to abort her child even after 20 weeks if there is a risk of the child being born with some anomaly. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, says abortion in India is legal until the 20th week of pregnancy and thereafter only if the mother’s health is at risk.
In Halappanavar’s case, she died of septicaemia after doctors refused to carry out an abortion though she had suffered a miscarriage, citing Catholic laws.
In 2008, a Bhayander couple had approached the Bombay HC seeking permission for an abortion after tests revealed the child had congenital defects. Since the woman was 24 weeks pregnant, the court refused her the permission to abort. But, she suffered a miscarriage in the 27th week.
“For Halappanavar, the child was a threat to her. In our country, abortion in such cases is allowed at any stage of pregnancy,” Dr Ashwini Bhalerao Gandhi, gynaecologist, PD Hinduja hospital, and president of Mumbai obstetrics and gynaecologist society, said.
“What we have been talking about is the right of the mother to abort her child in case some anomaly is detected, which can be life-threatening for the child after birth,” she said.
Some time ago the central government set up a committee to come up with recommendations for amending the MTP Act that would help solve such problems. But the government has been going slow because introducing changes might clash with the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) Act. “It is a tricky issue. We doctors have the will but others too should share our views,” said Gandhi.
Dr Nandita Palshetkar, gynaecologist and infertility expert at the Lilavati hospital, said heart anomalies are picked up later in the pregnancy. "These days anomalies can be treated after birth but then the quality of life of the child is debatable. A woman should be empowered with the right to abort her child in such cases,” she said, “But we are lucky... at least our country is liberal. Women can go for abortion at any stage if the foetus threatens her life.”