Know Your Rights: Abortion in India
In Know Your Rights, we simplify the rights you’ve been given, so you know how to exercise them.
Abortion, or the termination of a pregnancy through chemical, surgical or other means, was legalized in India in 1971. Under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act enacted that year, any woman, seeking an abortion shall be able to get one, provided the grounds she states are permissible under the law.
Despite it being legally recognized under the Indian law, many women are either unaware of their right to medically terminate a pregnancy, or seek unsafe abortions from outside the formal health care system due to stigma around the procedure.
Therefore, we spoke to Dr. Komal Sahay, a gynecologist from Mumbai’s Mamta Maternity Home and lawyer Kshiti Seth to understand India’s laws on abortion, so women know how and when they can access the procedure.
Is abortion legal in India?
Yes. Under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971, it is possible for every Indian woman outside of the Jammu and Kashmir region, with a pregnancy under 20 weeks, to get an abortion from a registered medical practitioner only.
At what point in pregnancy can a woman get an abortion?
Up to and including 12 weeks’ gestation, a woman can get an abortion after one doctor has issued a letter of approval. After 12 and up to and including 20 weeks’ gestation, a woman can get an abortion provided two doctors or registered medical practitioners have given the letter of approval.
Beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy, legal provisions allow termination, after permission from the court, only if the woman is suffering from a serious disease or if her physical or mental health is endangered by her pregnancy.
How long do I have to wait to get an abortion?
There is no waiting period per se, but the protocol of consulting one doctor (if 12 weeks pregnant or less) and two doctors (after 12 and up to and including 20 weeks) has to be followed, which may take time. The process of consultation and the appointment date for the abortion must fall within the term limits.
Under what conditions can I ask for an abortion?
The MTP Act permits abortion under the following circumstances:
- If the pregnancy is harmful to the woman’s life, physical or mental health
- If there is a chance that the child may suffer from physical or mental abnormalities upon birth
- If the pregnancy is caused by rape (presumed to constitute a grave injury to mental health)
- If a pregnancy resulted from the failure of a contraceptive used by a married woman or her husband (which again is presumed to cause grave injury to mental health)
I’m unmarried. Can I get an abortion?
If you are 18 or older, and unmarried, you can ask for an abortion upon the above grounds. You require no one’s consent but your own.
However, if you are below 18, you must provide written consent from your guardian to get an abortion in India. In the absence of any of this permission, the abortion will be considered illegal under the MTP Act.
Whose permission does the doctor need to go ahead with an abortion?
If the woman is 18 or older, the doctor needs only her consent in writing. If the woman is below 18, the doctor will need a letter of consent from a guardian.
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Who do I need to consult while seeking an abortion?
In the first trimester — through week 12 — only one doctor or registered medical practitioner needs to clear the case for an abortion.
If the pregnancy has exceeded 12 weeks, up to and including 20 weeks’ gestation, two doctors need to be satisfied that the conditions mentioned above, or the grounds to seek an abortion, have been fulfilled. However, the gestation period doesn’t matter if the doctor feels that an immediate abortion must be conducted to save the mother’s life.
The procedure before an abortion includes evaluating the woman’s medical history and overall health, followed by confirming the pregnancy with a physical exam. Then the doctor will do an ultrasound exam to date the pregnancy and to confirm it’s not outside the uterus (ectopic pregnancy) or a tumor that developed in the uterus (molar pregnancy.) Then there will be blood and urine tests and the doctor is also liable to explain the procedure, side effects, possible risks and complications if any.
Can I get an abortion based on the sex of the fetus?
No, it’s a crime. Firstly, under the Pre-Conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994, it is illegal to conduct any kind of test or procedure (for instance, an ultrasound), to determine the sex of the fetus.
And secondly, if it is found that abortion was sought based on the sex of the fetus, both the person seeking an abortion and the doctor who performed it can be imprisoned for three to seven years, depending on the stage of the pregnancy at the time of the abortion.
When is abortion illegal and what are the penalties for it?
Outside of the permitted conditions explained above, abortion is illegal in India. The law provides only one other exception to an abortion that falls outside of the legal parameters: if an abortion is performed in good faith to save a life.
The penalty, which could range from a fine to maximum of seven years in prison (depending on the stage of pregnancy), or both, will be applicable to both the doctor and the person seeking an abortion.
Related on The Swaddle:
Abortion Is Legal in India, But Not Enough Women Know It
Can someone else force me to have an abortion? If not, what is the punishment for it?
Nobody can force you to have an abortion. If someone does, or if someone performs one without your consent, they can face jail time of up to 10 years and a fine.
What happens if an abortion results in the death of the patient?
If the abortion is done with the person’s consent, and the procedure results in death, the person who performed the abortion can face jail time of 10 years and a fine.
However, if an abortion is performed without the consent of the patient and results in death, then the person who performed the abortion will face life imprisonment.
Can I seek an abortion for an unintended pregnancy resulting from contraceptive failure, even if the pregnancy is not endangering me or the baby?
If you’re married and seeking an abortion because a contraceptive didn’t work, you can get an abortion. In such a case, the doctor has a legal duty to assume that the pregnancy resulting from failed contraception may affect your mental health.
However, for unmarried women, while mental agony is permitted grounds for an abortion, a doctor has no legal duty to assume that a pregnancy resulting from failed contraception may affect your mental health.
So can I or can I not get an abortion if I’m not married and I get pregnant because of a contraceptive failure or something like that?