Thu, Sep 07, 2017 - Page 14 News List

A matter of life and death

A strict 20 week limit has many Indian women taking desperate measures to get abortions, as campaigners call for the line to be redrawn

By Roli Srivastava  /  Reuters

A girl stands on posters during a rally against abortion in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, Oct. 2, 2008.

Photo: Reuters

They didn’t pop open boxes of sweets or send out excited phone messages when their first child was born at public hospital on a rainy Mumbai night in July.

The couple had known from the 24th week of the pregnancy that their child would be born with Arnold Chiari Type II syndrome — a structural defect in the brain.

Since abortions in India are allowed only up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, the couple petitioned India’s Supreme Court to allow them a to terminate the pregnancy, which was by then 27 weeks. The court rejected their plea.

The couple, who chose to remain anonymous in the much-publicized case, said in media interviews that they did not have the wherewithal — emotional and financial — to take care of the child, while doctors could not indicate the infant’s expected life span.

The baby died a fortnight ago.

“There was no treatment available for the baby. Pus was flowing from the brain. The mother was home and cared for the baby for a month and a half,” said Nikhil Datar, a Mumbai-based gynecologist whom the couple consulted.

Datar guided the couple to file the abortion petition in the Supreme Court citing the fetus’s abnormality.

“She [the mother] has now slipped into depression. We don’t disturb her any more,” Datar said.

When India introduced the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act in 1971, it set a 20-week deadline for abortions, which campaigners say was an arbitrary decision then, and now ignores the medical advances India has made.

The Indian government remains reluctant to change the law fearing its misuse for sex-selective abortions.

But the 20-week deadline has hit victims of sexual assault, especially the very young whose pregnancies are detected late, campaigners say.

In July, the Supreme Court rejected an abortion plea made by the parent of a 10-year-old rape victim who delivered a child last month.

The court last week appointed a medical board to study the abortion plea of the 13-year-old rape survivor who is now 31 weeks’ pregnant, and will hear her plea this week.

“It is unethical to put a victim of rape through the trauma of a full term pregnancy and then abandon the child,” said Sangeeta Rege of the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes, a health charity supporting the 13-year-old.

These cases were among a string of petitions, backed by the some of the country’s best known doctors, health charities and lawyers, seeking abortions at India’s top court.

The court has approved more pleas than it has declined, but activists say suggested amendments to the 1971 act to extend the abortion deadline to 24 weeks and to train more doctors to carry out abortions should be passed in parliament to unburden the court and save women from unnecessary stress.

“In 45 years, technological interventions have improved. Terminations are becoming safer and safer,” said Datar, who is guiding at least six patients currently on their abortion pleas.

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Abortions in India are a “conditional right,” offered only if there is a substantial risk of the child being born with a physical or mental handicap or in the case of contraceptive failure.

But the termination must be carried out within 20 weeks — unless the mother’s life is in danger — and the final decision rests with the doctor, who will often consult the woman’s wider family.

“Abortion is not being understood as a woman’s right. Women are asked to bring their spouse or in-laws if they are seeking an abortion particularly in the second trimester,” said Rege.

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