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The Sanctity and Inviolability of Human Life in the Context of Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill in India

Ahimsa is the Sanskrit word for nonviolence. It is an ethical principle of not causing any harm to living beings. Being a key virtue in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism and one of the slogans of Mahatma Gandhi, the concept of Ahimsa is deep-rooted in the mindset of India. However, in India, there is a contradiction between the theory and practice of this concept.

India, a country that was a model for non-violence of any sort has now approved the himsa (destruction) of the innocent foetus through the ‘Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill (MTP). The MTP was first passed in 1971 and it permitted a woman to terminate her pregnancy within the twelve weeks of her pregnancy after consulting registered medical practitioner. If the termination is between 12-20 weeks the opinion of two doctors was needed. The new bill aims to amend the MTP of 1971. One of the reasons for the amendment is that those women who seek to terminate the pregnancy beyond twenty weeks have to face the cumbersome legal recourse. Secondly, it is argued that the previous bill denies the reproductive rights of women. Thirdly, the increased number of unsafe abortion causes to maternal deaths in the country. It is reported that in India, at least ten women die every day due to unsafe abortions. Another criticism of MTP of 1971 was that it failed to keep pace with the advanced technologies in the medical sciences that allow the removal of a foetus at a relatively advanced state of pregnancy. Besides, a minor cannot terminate her pregnancy without the consent of her guardian.

Seeing the limitation of the MTP of 1971, the new bill extends the termination of pregnancy period from twenty weeks to twenty-four weeks. The bill makes it easier for women, especially those particular categories of vulnerable women including survivors of rape, victims of incest, minors, differently-abled women, etc. to safely and legally terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Instead of two or more registered medical practitioner, it proposes the requirement of one registered medical practitioner for the termination of pregnancy. Besides, this bill clarifies that the name and other particular details of these women who undergo the treatment shall not be revealed, except to a person who is approved in any law that is currently in force. It is argued that this bill helps to detect several foetus abnormalities that happen after the twentieth week of pregnancy. The bill provides access to women in the area of medical and legal services and through which the maternal mortality and the morbidity arising out of such unsafe abortions can be reduced. Moreover, the bill relaxes one of the clauses of the MTP of 1971 that the single and unmarried women could not cite contraceptive failure as a reason for seeking an abortion.

Those who support the bill, especially, the women activists argue that the new bill emphasizes and recognizes women’s right to make reproductive choices and their decision to abort as a dimension of their liberty and a fundamental right to privacy. They highlight the right to health, right to quality of life, right to scientific progress, right to freedom, right to privacy and right to choose. According to them, the new bill protects the women from a life-threatening situation, if the pregnancy goes wrong. At the same time, it avoids all kinds of inhibition towards the procedures of pregnancy termination, especially in cases of the survivors of rape and incest. Those who support this bill argue that it addresses the need for gender justice through the prism of reproductive rights over their bodies. They claim that it strengthens and protects the dignity and privacy of women and gives greater autonomy to women.

The Catholic Church in India strongly opposes the amendment of the bill. The Catholic Bishops Council of in India questions the ruling government since it promotes and establishes a culture of death than a culture of life. The most fundamental right is the right to be born. However, this right is denied due to the new bill. The Catholic Church has never changed its conviction and teaching that abortion is gravely wrong at every stage of the embryo. The Church teaches, “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (CCC, 2270). It means human life has an inherent dignity. It must be treated with due respect. God loves every human life from the time of conception. So it must be safeguarded with utmost care. God, the source of life, entrusted every man and woman to partake in His mission of protecting life. A foetus, which has the full potentiality to be a human being, is a person from the very moment of its conception. The Church criticizes the bill because there may be chances for sex determination which may lead to fetal manslaughter and female infanticide. Any kind of termination of life ends the life of a child and offends God. Hence, the Church argues that abortion is morally wrong.

The Church stands for pro-life rather than pro-choice. Her mission is to safeguard the value and goodness of life. The Church accepts that any kind of violence against women like rape or incest is an evil. But, to stop an evil with another evil is not an answer to the problems and the context that is mentioned in the new bill. Although the viability of the foetus is placed at present at about twenty-eight weeks, it is argued that it may occur even before twenty-four weeks. In that case, the termination of the foetus, which is a potential human being, cannot morally be accepted. There may be developments in science and technologies. There may be new laws based on these theories and developments. However, the advancement in science and technology does not mean that they are justifiable in all situations. So the Church in India makes it clear that human life, from the moment of conception, must be protected and respected by all means. The protection of human life is not based on the quality of life but based on the sanctity of life. One should not destroy life for one’s selfish interests. The Church believes that those who cannot give life has no right to destroy the life of another person.

To conclude, on the one hand, the government and most of the women activists support the amendment of the previous bill. But, on the other hand, the Catholic Church in India strongly opposes and asks the government to stop the amendment. The Catholic Church in India invites all the people of goodwill and their conscience to respond to the amendment of the laws of abortion. Christians are the ambassadors of life. So, each faithful has a responsibility to protect, to encourage and to embrace the dignity of all human life, irrespective of all kinds of abnormalities. Besides, the Church in India has to prepare its own pastoral policies in order to stop and quit the MTP. One of the beautiful prayers of India, from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.2.28), says; Asato ma sadgamaya (lead me from asat to the sat), tamaso ma jyotirgamaya (lead me from darkness to light) mrtyoma amrtam gamaya (lead me from death to life) Om Shanti Shanti Shanti (Om peace, peace, peace). The vocation of every people of goodwill is to create a culture that promotes life and leads humanity from death to life. So whatever that brings and embraces death is against the true spirit of the nation. As the proponents of Ahimsa to the whole world, India has a unique role in upholding the sanctity of human life and standing for its inviolability.