Historic SC Ruling: Equal Abortion Rights Till 24 Wks To Unmarried Women; No ‘Permission’ Needed!

There should be no distinction between a married and an unmarried woman when it comes to all citizens’ equal right to care, and the 'moralities' of how the pregnancy happened should not matter.

‘Termination of pregnancy’ has always been a cultural, religious and emotional issue in most cultures, and the questions asked can be very intrusive and traumatising.

Having experienced this both as a married woman and a single woman I know the awkwardness of the questions asked for this by the healthcare workers. Questions about sexual activity, legal status of the relationship sometimes even asking the man to be present there in person for ‘permitting’ this procedure.

A woman’s right on her body, her uterus and its ability to reproduce has come into global focus earlier this year when the US Supreme Court decision overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision paving the way for about half of the 50 US states to ban or heavily restrict women’s access to abortions.

What is the new verdict?

The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1971 and the Rules of 2003 earlier prohibited unmarried women between 20 weeks to 24 weeks pregnant from legally availing of a safe abortion.

So, to put it clearly, until now, abortion was allowed up to 20 weeks in both married and unmarried women, but up to 24 weeks only in

  • married women or those who had been married till recently (divorced/ widowed),
  • or pregnancy occurring out of rape,
  • and in case of pregnancy in minors or those with mental illness
  • when there was a genetic disorder or foetal malformation detected

Now, with this judgement, unmarried women also have a right to accessing an abortion up to 24 weeks.

To quote more from the judgement  – “Reproductive rights include

  • the right to access education and information about contraception and sexual health
  • the right to decide whether or what type of contraceptives to use
  • the right to choose whether or when to have children
  • the right to choose the number of children
  • the right to choose safe and legal abortion.
  • the right to reproductive health care…
  • Women must also have the autonomy to make decisions on these rights, free from coercion or violence.”

This landmark judgement is a huge relief to me personally today and to thousands of single sexually active women, that an unmarried woman can seek termination of pregnancy of up to 24 weeks term in a consensual relationship, not just if there was a breach of consent.

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Why was this a huge thing and a necessity?

The Supreme Court of India has upheld the rights of bodily autonomy of a single woman as paramount, and equivalent to those of a married woman, something feminists have struggled for in their demand for reproductive rights.

Contraception usage is still low in India and hence the onus of an unwanted pregnancy is often on the uterus-bearer and birthgiver. Unmarried women denied the right to safe abortions then often resort to unsafe methods and the grey market of illegal abortions.

Statistics suggest that about eight women die everyday in India due to unsafe abortions. Between 2007-2011 about 67% of all abortions carried out in India have been considered unsafe by several studies.

The issue has been highlighted by gender right activists from time to time. To bridge this disparity, in the earlier 2021 amendments the word ‘partner’ was included in the law to include women who are not married to their sexual partner.

It is crucial that law and healthcare becomes inclusive of women who become pregnant outside the ambits of marriage as well. If the medical risks of any such procedure are the same for any woman, married or unmarried, then why should a legal marital status be used to discriminate in the care and services offered to them?

Justice DY Chandrachud, moving with the times!

This right is now extended to any pregnancy even if it has resulted from a consensual relationship. There should be no distinction between a married woman and an unmarried woman when it comes to all citizens’ equal right to care, and the ‘moralities’ of how the pregnancy happened should not matter.

Justice DY Chandrachud delivering this groundbreaking judgement read an excerpt that said “the interpretation of the MTP act has to reflect the social realities. Social norms change and evolve as a society evolves and laws must match with the needs of the time. Prohibiting single or unmarried pregnant women from accessing abortion while allowing married women with the same term of pregnancy to access healthcare was a violation of Article 14 which gives the right to equality before law and equal protection.

The court also added that said a single or unmarried woman may undergo similar “change in material circumstances” as a married woman. Among these changes, the court listed

  • injury to mental health,
  • abandonment,
  • loss of employment or
  • she could be subjected domestic violence during the tenure of the pregnancy,
  • the expectant mother might change her mind about having a child with her former partner,
  • there can be foetal abnormalities that are a danger to her own health
  • and the pregnancy can be non-consensual.

A big relief even in case of pregnancies from marital rape

Plus the judgement also says that any woman is well within her rights now to decide to go for a safe abortion without the need to get permissions for this from anyone.

This judgement is hence a huge relief to married women as well as it is now also allows MTP for pregnancies that happen in cases of marital rape, even though marital rape itself remains a contested legal issue in our judicial system.

The judgement has said some bold and revolutionary words about a woman’s right to her body, and has garnered applause from most quarters supporting women’s rights.

The judgement shall always be a watershed moment in India’s legal history. However, mindsets do not change so fast and whether the Indian society shall support the autonomy of its women on their bodies remains to be seen.

Image source: pixabay

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About the Author

Pooja Priyamvada

Pooja Priyamvada is an author, columnist, translator, online content & Social Media consultant, and poet. An awarded bi-lingual blogger she is a trained psychological/mental health first aider, mindfulness & grief facilitator, emotional wellness trainer, reflective read more...

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