Why Do Women Need a Medical Board to Sign-Off on Abortion?

Sarojini Nadimpally and Sneha Banerjee| The Wire|16 August 2016

On July 25 2016, the Supreme Court of India, granted Ms X the “liberty … if she is so advised, to terminate her pregnancy” at 24 weeks. The judgment was based on the recommendations of a medical board comprising seven doctors from the KEM Hospital and Medical College, Mumbai. The board recommended that, “in view of severe multiple congenital anomalies, the foetus is not compatible with extra-uterine life”, that the “risk to the mother of continuation of pregnancy can gravely endanger her physical and mental health” and that the “risk of termination of pregnancy is within acceptable limits”.

In India, legal engagement with women’s reproductive capacities has been challenged by both the women’s movement and the health rights movement. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 (MTP Act) itself was actually envisaged as a part of the Indian state’s efforts at enacting a policy of ‘population control’ which has since given way to a discourse on ‘population stabilisation’. The MTP tacitly incentivises having only two children by counting contraceptive failure as legitimate grounds for abortion stating it is “for the purpose of limiting the number of children”.

The debate on abortion often tends to pit women’s rights to reproductive autonomy and their bodily integrity against a foetus’ debatable right to life. The issue of when a foetus is considered to gain such ‘right to life’ is also fraught with contentions. However, it is essential to engage with women’s bodily integrity by contextualising the issue by raising deeply unsettling questions about: disability, congenital deformities and caring for disabled children without adequate social security and infrastructural support. In polarised debates between people who identify as pro-life or anti-abortionists and pro-choice proponents, it is easy to pit one against the other, but it is far more complicated to bring them together. We need to guard against a eugenic push to beget ‘perfect’ and ‘normal’ children as well as resist the patriarchal pressure for sex-selective abortions in order to have an ethical approach to the debate on women’s reproductive rights.

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