Parliament proceedings | Rajya Sabha passes the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill

Opposition’s demand for detailed scrutiny by a Parliamentary Select Committee defeated by voice vote

March 16, 2021 10:14 pm | Updated 10:14 pm IST - New Delhi:

 Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan speaks in the Rajya Sabha, during the Budget Session of Parliament, in New Delhi, Tuesday, March 16, 2021.

Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan speaks in the Rajya Sabha, during the Budget Session of Parliament, in New Delhi, Tuesday, March 16, 2021.

The Rajya Sabha on Tuesday passed the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020 that increases the time period within which an abortion may be carried out.

Opposition MPs pointed out that the Bill still does not give women the freedom to decide, since she will need a nod from a medical board in the case of pregnancies beyond 24 weeks.

The Opposition’s demand to send the Bill to a Parliamentary Select Committee for detailed scrutiny was defeated by a voice vote.

Currently, abortion requires the opinion of one doctor if it is done within 12 weeks of conception, and two doctors if it is done between 12 and 20 weeks. The Bill allows abortion to be done on the advice of one doctor up to 20 weeks, and two doctors in the case of certain categories of women between 20 and 24 weeks. For a pregnancy to be terminated after 24 weeks in case of substantial foetal abnormalities, the opinion of the State-level medical board is essential.

The Bill was passed in March last year in the Lok Sabha.

Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said the amendments in the Bill had been made after studying global practices and after wide consultation within the country. The amendments, he said, had been made pursuant to the rising number of pleas in the court. There are 23 petitions in front of the Supreme Court and many hundreds in the High Courts. “Under the leadership of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we will not frame any law which harms women. This is to preserve and protect the dignity of women,” he said.

The original Bill was framed in 1971.

During the debate, however, many of the Opposition members, while welcoming the Bill, pointed out the severe lacunae and problems with its approach. Congress leader Ami Yajnik, who opened the debate, said the Bill did not reflect consultations with stakeholders. The medical board had to have specialists but government data itself showed a grave shortage in availability of doctors, she said. Additionally, Ms. Yajnik said, “Should the State intervene when the pregnant woman is worried about her own life, about the well-being of the foetus, and also about the stigma involved?”

Ms. Yajnik pointed out that as per the existing laws, too, women seeking to terminate a pregnancy beyond 20 weeks had to seek the permission of the court, and now they needed the permission of the medical board beyond 24 weeks. “Again we are relegating the women to the courts,” she said.

Shiv Sena leader Priyanka Chaturvedi said that it was wrong to say that this Bill was based on a “right based” approach. Instead, she said, it had been drafted with a “need based” approach. For a woman to decide to abort, especially at a stage when she knows there is life inside her, is a difficult choice. “To make such a woman run to the medical board, is demeaning to her, [and an] invasion of privacy and choice. It creates more bureaucratic hurdles. You are not allowing the woman to make the choice. Why does she need to take permission of a medical board?” she asked.

The Nationalist Congress Party’s Fauzia Khan also pointed out that the Bill was impractical for the rural sector, where it is impossible for the woman to get an opinion from two doctors if she wanted to abort beyond 20-weeks. “The shortage of specialist doctors is a reality, particularly in rural areas. Getting opinion from two doctors for medical termination of pregnancy for the gestation period of 20-24 weeks is just not practically possible,” Ms. Khan said.

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