Abortion Debate Rages in India After Court Decision
Pitting pro-life supporters against abortion lobbyists, the Mumbai High Court verdict has raised moral, legal and medical questions.
Under a 1971 law, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, any abortion in India after 20 weeks’ gestation is illegal unless medical opinion holds that there is a grave danger to a woman’s life.
Niketa Mehta and her husband sought an abortion after 26 weeks, when a prenatal diagnosis indicated the baby had severe congenital heart problems.
Observing that the law allows abortion after 20 weeks only if there was a threat to a mother’s life, the court found no grounds to “make an exception” in the Mehta case.
The court said the couple had failed to prove that the child faced a substantial risk of severe physical or mental disability.
Dinesh Yadav, a senior Indian advocate based at the Rajasthan High Court, said the case had attracted considerable attention because it was probably the first time legal permission for abortion has been sought in India on grounds of the baby’s medical condition.
Yadav said failing to take into account the trauma caused as a result of having a disabled child could impact women’s rights, and therefore a debate should be held on changing the law.
But pro-life activists praised the court’s decision, saying that any rash judgment could lead to increased demand for “perfect” babies.
A number of medical practitioners supported the pro-life view. Dr. Yogesh Bafna, a surgeon at Jaipur’s SMS Hospital, said that any liberalization of the law would “open up a Pandora’s box, allowing people to play God.”
Blaming illegal sex-determination ultrasound tests and selective abortions for skewing of the gender ratio in favor of men, Bafna warned that liberal legal interpretation would only lead to “more dishonest medical practices.”
Despite strict laws outlawing sex-selective abortion, a preference for male children in India has led to large scale female feticides, with the number of “missing” girls estimated at more than 600,000. A similar situation exists in China, exacerbated by the “one child” population control policies.
Dr. Ashok Gupta, executive director of the International Society of Tropical Pediatrics, suspects that doctors at some ill equipped diagnostic centers sometimes raise the alarm about possible fetal disabilities, even when the actual situation is uncertain, in order to make money by ordering expensive follow-up tests.
“Many such prenatal diagnoses have been proved wrong at birth time,” Gupta said.
Prominent New Delhi-based gynecologist Dr. Preet Bedi concurred that prenatal tests were not wholly reliable, saying “diagnosis of fetal abnormality is not easy and is not always accurate.”
In Mehta’s case, a second medical opinion was contrary to the first one.
Bedi, however, said he believed that abortion laws should be “urgently amended to accommodate late abortions of abnormal fetuses.” If this was not done, he said, then all prenatal diagnosis in late pregnancy should be banned, since it would be pointless to do so if abortion is prohibited even when abnormalities are confirmed.
India’s Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss has ruled out any amendment, saying that any further relaxation of abortion laws could be “misused.”
Many women’s rights activists hailed Mehta for taking the case to court, although some weighed in on the side of saving the unborn child.
“No one has the right to impede nature’s design,” said Nidhi Sharma of the Rajasthan University Women’s Association. Some women are acting in an irresponsible way with regard to motherhood and its incumbent duties, she said.
Appealing for compassion while decrying what he called a “culture of death,” Mumbai’s Roman Catholic Archbishop Cardinal Oswald Gracias pledged that the church would take care of Mehta’s child if it suffered from any disability. A city hospital also promised to give the couple a free pacemaker for their child.
A prominent figure in the Jain faith, Acharya Mahapragya, said citizens should be “more conscientious and responsible towards bringing life into this world.”
Clearly disturbed by the controversy, he said “killing of any living being is evil and even more so, when it is aimed at a powerless fetus.”
Jainism disallows violence in any form. Most Jains are strict vegetarians for the same reason.