Rajya Sabha on Tuesday passed a bill to raise the upper limit for permitting abortions from the present 20 weeks to 24 weeks for “special categories of women” including rape survivors, victims of incest, minors, and the differently-abled. 

The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020 to amend the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 was passed by voice vote on Tuesday. The bill was passed by Lok Sabha about a year ago. “The bill will protect the dignity and rights of women,” tweeted Union health minister Harsh Vardhan following the passing of the bill.

The health minister moved The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill 2020 in the upper house which was passed by voice vote. The bill also ensures that women get access to safe and legal abortion services on therapeutic, eugenic, humanitarian grounds.

According to the proposed legislation, the opinion of only one provider will be required up to 20 weeks of gestation and of two providers for termination of pregnancy of 20-24 weeks of gestation. Further, the upper gestation limit won’t apply in cases of substantial foetal abnormalities diagnosed by the medical board. The composition, functions, and other details of the Medical Board will be prescribed subsequently in Rules under the Act.

“The bill was drafted after extensive expert consultation involving all stakeholders such as gynaecologist association, related NGOs, Indian Medical Association etc. A Group of ministers chaired by Nitin Gadkari, and the ethics committee was also consulted, and only after elaborate discussion the bill took shape. The bill was also discussed in great detail in Lok Sabha before being passed unanimously,” said Harsh Vardhan in Rajya Sabha. Lok Sabha passed the bill last year.

The bill seeks to amend the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971. It provides for enhancing the upper gestation limit from 20 to 24 weeks for special categories of women but does not specify the category. The bill leaves the categories to be defined by the states in the amendments to the MTP rules and includes survivors of rape, victims of incest and other vulnerable women like differently-abled women and minors.

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.

A section of members demanded the bill be sent to a select committee of the upper house but the demand was defeated by a voice vote.

Experts say there was a much-needed change in the abortion law. “…Many a times you get pregnancies with severe congenital abnormalities but the gestation period is over 20 weeks, so we cannot abort even if know the baby will not be healthy. Also, because sometimes the level to scan is done only at 20 weeks and by the time abnormality is known, the permitted limit to abort is already crossed. It is also safe to abort till 24 weeks…,” said Dr Anuradha Kapur, senior director and head of the unit, Institute of obstetrics and gynaecology, Max Healthcare.

The bill also sets up state-level medical boards to decide if a pregnancy is to be terminated after 24 weeks in cases of substantial foetal abnormalities.