The Indian legal system allows women to terminate their pregnancy up to 24 weeks. But what if the female is under the age of 18?
Abortion, the deliberate pregnancy termination, has been a subject of intense global debate and discussion. Though abortion rights are an extended personal right, they are important.
Recent events, such as the Supreme Court judgement in X v. Principal Secretary, Health and Family Welfare Department, have brought abortion rights into the spotlight. In this context, India stands out as a nation that values and respects a woman’s autonomy over her body, with a progressive legal framework recognising the significance of reproductive and abortion rights.
Abortion laws in India have been updated over time to adapt to with dynamic requirements of the public. These laws provide conditions under which women can opt for abortion. But is abortion legal in India for those under 18? Are they allowed to seek legal abortion in India?
What is an Abortion?
The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act of 1971 defines abortion as an untimely termination of the foetus. The act lays the period before which the termination is deemed an abortion and after which it is a foeticide.
Abortion or deliberate medical termination of pregnancy can be performed in either of the two ways—through Medical Abortion or Surgical Abortion.
In medical abortion, a qualified physician prescribes pills and drugs to women pregnant for less than 7 weeks. The supervision of a physician is necessary to avoid severe health problems and other consequences.
The doctors perform abortions when a woman is pregnant for more than 7 weeks. Per the MTP, only RMPs (Registered Medical Practitioners) can perform surgical abortions.
Surgical abortion is more suitable and effective than a medical abortion because there is a comparatively low risk of overdose and incomplete procedures.
Abortion Laws in India
The right to terminate a pregnancy at will is legal in India. However, there is a predefined set of conditions within which abortion may take place.
Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860
Before the advent of the MTP Act of 1971, the Indian Penal Code dealt with abortion laws in India. It criminalised abortion, while MTP Act is an exception to it. However, the IPC does not provide strict and direct provisions regarding abortion. It defines and deals with miscarriage under sections 312 to 316 of the code.
Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971
This legislation exclusively deals with abortion laws in India. The statute defined the age, pregnancy period, consent, and any other relevant condition required to terminate a pregnancy legally.
MTP provides that abortion within 12 weeks is legal with the approval of a medical practitioner. However, for the termination of pregnancy between 12 to 20 weeks, the permission of two medical practitioners is required.
Recently the MTP Act 2021 has increased this period to 24 weeks for particular cases. These include:
- Change in marital status
- Mental or physical disability in women
- Foetal abnormalities
- Sexual assault, incest, or rape
- In situations of disaster or humanitarian settings.
What is the Legal Age for Abortion?
According to the abortion law in India, under the MTP Act, 1971, any woman, irrespective of her marital status, can terminate her pregnancy if it poses a considerable threat to her physical or mental health. However, as a benchmark, the legal age for abortion is defined to be 18 years or more. So, a woman over the age of 18 years can legally terminate her pregnancy with written consent given to the doctor.
Is Abortion Legal in India for Under 18?
It is not rare that minors get pregnant, and their pregnancies can cause mental and physical injuries, especially if they are unmarried.
As per section 3 sub-clause 4 of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, women under 18 do not possess an independent right to terminate their pregnancy. Even married teenage girls cannot legally terminate their pregnancies without taking the prior consent of their legal guardians (As per the MTP Act, a guardian is a person who cares for a minor or a medically-ill person).
Additionally, rule 6(7) of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Rules, 2020 directs that a Registered Medical Practitioner (RMP) should counsel a pregnant child about legal options available under the MTP Act, 1971 and Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015.
Section 19 of the POCSO Act directs the RMP to report an offence of statutory rape under the said act. However, medical practitioners need not disclose the identity and personal details of an adult seeking an abortion when filing their report.
Factors Leading to Under-18 Pregnancies
- Firstly, a lack of knowledge about sexual and reproductive health among teenagers can lead to unwanted pregnancies. Inadequate sex education and limited access to contraception and reproductive healthcare services significantly lead to early pregnancy.
- Child marriage is another significant contributor to teenage pregnancy in India. Despite 18 being the legal age of marriage for girls, child marriages are still prominent in some communities. These early marriages often lead to teenage pregnancies, posing severe health risks for young mothers and their unborn children.
- Rape is also a leading factor in teenage pregnancies. Cases of sexual violence against minors result in unwanted pregnancies, leaving young girls in distressed situations and with no option other than pregnancy.
Is a Minor Abortion Illegal?
The abortion of a minor can be illegal and penalised if:
- The pregnancy is longer than 24 weeks.
- In case the guardian and RMP haven’t approved the abortion.
- RMP hasn’t informed the police about the sexual activity concerned with the minor.
- Any other or non-rational reason caused abortion.
The abortion law in India has developed over time to bring within its umbrella all the problems suffered by pregnant women across the country to provide them with a legal and fair opportunity to regain their ordinary life.
The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act of 1971 permits legal abortion irrespective of women’s age and marital status. Adult women won’t require anyone else’s permission. However, females under 18 must have the guardian’s approval. Further, reporting to the police is mandatory to avoid any legal consequences, as sexual conduct with a child, whether with or without consent, is considered a crime in India by the POCSO Act.