In an important verdict to further strengthen the reproductive rights of women and also to put to rest various misconception that only married woman is allowed to undergo abortion, a bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, A S Bopanna and J B Pardiwala held that a woman’s right would be under attack if women were forced to continue with unwanted pregnancies.
It said the women both married and unmarried are allowed to decide on undergoing abortion of unwanted pregancy under Medical Termination of Pregnancy(MTP) Act and rules made under the Act.
“If Rule 3B(c) was to be interpreted such that its benefits extended only to married women, it would perpetuate the stereotype and socially held notion that only married women indulge in sexual intercourse, and that consequently, the benefits in law ought to extend only to them. This artificial distinction between married and single women is not constitutionally sustainable. The benefits in law extend equally to both single and married women.
Section 3(2)(b) of MTP Act permits the termination of a pregnancy between twenty and twenty-four weeks, of such categories of women as may be prescribed by Rules and Rule 3B(c) says that a change in the marital status during the ongoing pregnancy (widowhood and divorce) renders women eligible for termination. But the rule is silent in case of unmarried women and on that basis Delhi high Cout refused abortion plea of a woman from Manipu and she subsequently approached the apex court.
The court held that the right of every woman to make reproductive choices without undue interference from the state is central to the idea of human dignity and deprivation of access to reproductive healthcare or emotional and physical wellbeing also injures the dignity of women.
“Societal factors often find reinforcement by way of legal barriers restricting a woman’s right to access abortion. The decision to have or not to have an abortion is borne out of complicated life circumstances, which only the woman can choose on her own terms without external interference or influence. Reproductive autonomy requires that every pregnant woman has the intrinsic right to choose to undergo or not to undergo abortion without any consent or authorization from a third party,” Justice Chandrachud, who penned the verdict for the bench, said.
It said that unmarried women end up resorting to unsafe and life threatening abortion because of socail stigma attached with pre-marital sexual relations and emphasised that law should evolve with changing times and there was need to give legal recognistion to non-traditional relationships.
The bench said “If women with unwanted pregnancies are forced to carry their pregnancies to term, the state would be stripping them of the right to determine the immediate and long-term path their lives would take. Depriving women of autonomy not only over their bodies but also over their lives would be an affront to their dignity. The right to choose for oneself – be it as significant as choosing the course of one’s life or as mundane as one’s day-to-day activities – forms a part of the right to dignity. It is this right which would be under attack if women were forced to continue with unwanted pregnancies.”
“While much of law’s benefits were (and indeed are) rooted in the institution of marriage, the law in modern times is shedding the notion that marriage is a precondition to the rights of individuals (alone or in relation to one another). Changing social mores must be borne in mind when interpreting the provisions of an enactment to further its object and purpose,” the bench said, adding “The law must remain cognizant of the fact that changes in society have ushered in significant changes in family structures”
“In the evolution of the law towards a gender equal society, the interpretation of the MTP Act and MTP Rules must consider the social realities of today and not be restricted by societal norms of an age which has passed into the archives of history. As society changes and evolves, so must our mores and conventions. A changed social context demands a readjustment of our laws. Law must not remain static and its interpretation should keep in mind the changing social context and advance the cause of social justice,” it said.