Impacting a woman’s freedom to reproductive choices


Impacting a woman’s freedom to reproductive choices


In a recent case, X vs Union of India, the Supreme Court of India declined a woman’s request to terminate a 26-week pregnancy after the Court observed that the termination could not proceed under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971, as the foetus was considered viable.


GS – 02 (Issues Arising Out of Design & Implementation of Policies, Issues Related to Women)

Mains Question:

Analyze the ethical implications and conflicts arising from the prioritization of a viable foetus over a woman’s right to choose termination beyond the stipulations of the MTP Act, emphasizing the need for a more comprehensive ethical and rights-based approach in such contentious legal decisions(150 words)

MTP (Medical Termination of Pregnancy) Act, 2021:

  • The Act now permits the termination of pregnancy up to 20 weeks for married women in the case of contraceptive method or device failure. Unmarried women are also granted the option for pregnancy termination under the same conditions.
  • The revised Act necessitates the opinion of one Registered Medical Practitioner (RMP) for terminations within 20 weeks of gestation. For terminations between 20-24 weeks, the requirement is raised to two RMPs. In cases involving substantial foetal abnormalities after 24 weeks, the input of a State-level medical board is mandatory.
  • The upper limit for pregnancy termination is extended from 20 to 24 weeks for specific categories of women, such as survivors of rape, victims of incest, and other vulnerable groups like differently abled women, minors, among others.
  • To maintain privacy, the law strictly prohibits the disclosure of information regarding a woman whose pregnancy has been terminated, except to authorized individuals as per the existing law.
  • The amendments aim to reduce preventable maternal mortality, aligning with the objectives of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 3.1, 3.7, and 5.6. These goals focus on reducing maternal mortality ratio, ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.
  • The revised Act has sparked debates surrounding the pregnant woman’s right to choose termination as part of her reproductive rights, juxtaposed against the state’s responsibility to safeguard life, including that of the foetus. The international landscape shows variations in abortion regulations based on foetal health and risk to the pregnant woman.
  • The Act confines termination beyond 24 weeks to cases where a Medical Board identifies substantial foetal abnormalities. Instances demanding abortion due to reasons like rape beyond the 24-week limit can only be pursued through a Writ Petition.
  • The Act mandates that only gynaecologists or obstetricians perform abortions. However, the scarcity of such specialized doctors, estimated at 75% in rural community health centers, poses a significant challenge for pregnant women seeking access to safe abortion facilities.

Dimensions of the Article:

  • Viability vs. Women’s Rights
  • MTP Act: Enabling Legislation or Rights Conferral?
  • Case Overview and Judicial Proceedings

Viability vs. Women’s Rights:

  • The recent court ruling reflects a critical conflict regarding the termination of pregnancies when a foetus reaches a viable stage. The judgment emphasizes that when a foetus becomes capable of survival outside the mother’s uterus, the woman’s right to choose termination is constrained, except in cases specified by the MTP Act.
  • However, the ruling misses addressing fundamental questions concerning the foetus’s independent moral status, legal standing, and constitutional rights.
  • The judgment’s failure to explore these crucial queries disproportionately prioritizes the rights of a foetus over a woman’s right to privacy and dignity.

MTP Act: Enabling Legislation or Rights Conferral?

  • The judgment neglects to inquire whether the MTP Act serves merely as an enabling legislation or if its exemptions constitute a bestowal of rights.
  • By refraining from examining these aspects, the Court missed an opportunity to deliberate on whether a woman should have the liberty to terminate her pregnancy beyond the Act’s stipulated terms. If the right to make reproductive choices is fundamental and inherent in the Constitution, the Court should consider extending directives beyond the Act’s boundaries to support a woman’s right to choose.

Case Overview and Judicial Proceedings:

  • The case revolved around a 27-year-old married woman, X, seeking to terminate her pregnancy, citing post-partum depression and financial constraints as key reasons.
  • Initially, a medical board supported her plea on the grounds that continuing the pregnancy could severely impact her mental health. However, the subsequent involvement of the Union government and differing opinions among judges led to a reconsideration of the verdict.
  • The final decision, rooted in the viability of the foetus and the Act’s limitations, denied the termination.

Way Forward and Conclusion:

The ruling missed addressing critical issues, such as the constitutional perspective on the status of a foetus and the role of the MTP Act. Upholding a woman’s right to reproductive choices within the scope of constitutional rights should take precedence.

  • The judgment could have embraced a broader interpretation, reinforcing a woman’s autonomy over her body and decisions, especially concerning reproductive health. Resolving such conflicts demands a holistic consideration of constitutional principles and women’s rights to safeguard their choices and dignities.