The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court recently allowed Life for All, a NGO that advocates for the rights of the unborn child, to be impleaded as a respondent in a petition that seeks to raise the ceiling for termination of pregnancies from 20 to 24 weeks. A similar petition, seeking an amendment in the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, is also pending before the Supreme Court of India.
In the last few years, the Constitutional courts have, under exceptional conditions, allowed the termination of pregnancies beyond 20 weeks. This has been especially true when the life of the pregnant mother or the baby in the womb was in imminent danger. Such exceptions were made on a case-by-case basis.
The petitioners in the cases before the Supreme Court and the Madras High Court want to make abortions beyond 20 weeks to be made permissible. There are compelling reasons, however, for the courts to refrain from accepting their plea. Termination of pregnancies in the second and third trimesters are highly unsafe and pose serious risks to the physical health of the mothers. Dangers include a possibility of the perforation of the uterus, hemorrhage or even death. Abortions in later stages of pregnancy also increase the risk of breast cancer. The risks of serious psychological consequences also increase manifold when the abortions are carried out after the first trimester. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, depression and even suicide are more prevalent in late pregnancies.
With the giant strides that medical technology has taken, the criticism against the proposed amendment is understandable. As early as 1987, James Elgin Gill, a Canadian boy at just 21 weeks and 5 days gestation, became the youngest baby to have survived and gone on to live a normal life.
We must also consider the legal position on the personhood of the unborn child and not only its viability. The unborn child is recognized as a person under various laws including criminal, property and family law. For instance, in a 2010 judgement, the Delhi High Court decided on the important question of whether an unborn child in the womb should be considered at par with a minor child in a claim for compensation for death. In upholding the validity of the claim and awarding compensation for the loss of fetus, the Court held that "an unborn child aged 20 weeks onward in the mother's womb till its birth is treated as equal to a child in existence. The fetus is another life and the loss of fetus is actually a loss of a child in the offing." Recognition of the personhood of the unborn child is also reflected in the fact that under Indian and International Law, pregnant women are not awarded death sentences.
Another important issue is that sex-selective abortions are witnessing an unprecedented rise. The child sex ratio in India has seen an alarming decline because of the abysmally poor implementation of the Prohibition of Sex Selection Act. In the last three decades alone, more than 17 million girls have gone missing because of sex-selection. Permitting abortions beyond 20 weeks will result in the selective elimination of more unborn girls. A similar fate may also befall children who are likely to be born with serious mental or physical handicap.
In a compassionate society, any proposal to alter the law as it stands cannot ignore the interests of the voiceless unborn child.