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Court keeps hands off abortion cut-off

New Delhi, March 8: The Supreme Court has declined to entertain a plea that women be allowed to medically terminate pregnancy after the 20-week deadline fixed by law as many carry foetuses with abnormalities in the last trimester.

A bench of Justices S.J. Mukhopadhyaya and Kurien Joseph declined to pass any order on the plea and instead allowed counsel Divya Jyothi to withdraw the petition with liberty to come out with an amended petition.

“We cannot pass any direction for amending the act,” the bench said, asking the counsel to come out with better suggestions.

The petition sought quashing of the 20-week deadline laid down in Section 3(2)(b) of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act on the ground that such a cut-off was obsolete and arbitrary and caused immense physical/mental trauma to women carrying foetuses with abnormalities.

The petition was filed on behalf of two women who claimed to have suffered immense mental and physical agony because of the restriction on terminating pregnancy beyond 20 weeks unless the mother’s condition is in serious jeopardy.

The petitioners did not want to be identified and chose to give their names as Mrs X and Mrs Y.

In the first case, it was submitted that Mrs X came from a poor background and helped her husband with his tailoring job. At 26 weeks of pregnancy, her first sonography diagnosed her foetus with an untreatable medical condition called anencephaly, where the organs develop but the head and brain don’t form.

Although her doctor knew delivery might threaten her health, her pregnancy could not be terminated because of the restriction imposed by law.

Eventually, she delivered a baby boy who died less than three hours later.

“In addition to her excruciating and dangerous labour, Mrs X endured the grief and sorrow caused by losing a child. The MTP Act’s Section 2(b) 20-week restriction forced her to undergo severe psychological, physical and emotional trauma from going through a full-term pregnancy just to have her foetus die immediately afterwards,” the petition said.

In the second case, Mrs Y, an advocate from Mumbai who got pregnant in June 2012, underwent a sonography in the 19th week. It detected a high possibility of abnormalities that her doctor said could lead to mental retardation and lack of muscle control in the baby, though there was a possibility of things improving after two-three weeks.

But since she had to take a decision before the 20th week, she chose to abruptly terminate the pregnancy with much anguish and trauma, the petition said.

In conformity with international laws respecting women’s rights to life, equality and health, countries such as Albania, Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Croatia, Denmark, Iceland, Israel, Luxembourg, Nepal, Netherlands, Slovakia, South Africa, UK and the US do not include absolute time limits in their abortion laws, the petition said.

Instead, these countries consider the woman’s physical and mental health and doctors’ opinions in determining if pregnancy can be terminated even after 20 weeks.

The petition urged that the MTP act in India be suitably amended in conformity with international standards.