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New Delhi: The Supreme Court has held that all women, irrespective of their marital status, are entitled to safe and legal abortion till 24 weeks of pregnancy under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act. In the significant judgment, the court also said that the meaning of “rape” in the ambit of this Act can be also held to include marital rape.
A bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, J.B. Pardiwala and A.S. Bopanna delivered the verdict on the interpretation of the MTP Act, and whether unmarried or single women can be “allowed” like their married counterparts the benefit of abortion up to 24 weeks.
The judgment, which is extensive, is understood have several significant assertions – including notes on the fact that not just cis-gendered women can be considered ‘women’ and that a woman’s own estimation as to whether she can carry her pregnancy to term out to be given significant reliance.
The top court said the distinction between married and unmarried women under the abortion laws is “artificial and constitutionally unsustainable” and perpetuates the stereotype that only married woman are sexually active.
“Women must have autonomy to have free exercise of these rights,” Justice Chandrachud said, according to LiveLaw.
“If Rule 3B(c) [of the MTP Act] is understood as only for married women, it would perpetuate the stereotype that only married women indulge in sexual activities,” the court said.
The court also held that the rights of reproductive autonomy give an unmarried women similar rights as a married women, the news outlet has reported.
” The object of section 3(2)(b) of the MTP Act is in allowing woman to undergo abortion after 20-24 weeks. Therefore, including only married and excluding unmarried woman will be violative of Article 14 of the Constitution,” the court said.
The apex court also observed that reproductive right is part of individual autonomy and because the foetus relies on the woman’s body to sustain, “the decision to terminate is firmly rooted in their right of bodily autonomy.”
“If the state forces a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to the full term, it will amount to an affront to her dignity,” the bench said in the key judgment.
The bench, on August 23, had reserved its verdict on interpretation of the MTP Act provisions which makes a distinction between married and unmarried women on the issue of abortion till 24 weeks of pregnancy.
The court also, crucially, held that when it comes to consideration of termination of pregnancy caused by rape, marital rape will also be taken into account.
“Married women may also form the part of the class of survivors of sexual assault or rape. The ordinary meaning of the word rape is sexual intercourse with a person without consent or against their will. Regardless of whether such forced intercourse occurs in the context of matrimony a woman may become pregnant as a result of non-consensual sexual intercourse performed upon her by her husband,” LiveLaw has additionally reported the court as having said.
This is significant as the same court recently sought the Union government’s response to the pleas arising out of the Delhi high court’s split verdict on the criminalisation of marital rape.
The high court had on May 11 delivered a split verdict, with one of the judges favouring striking down the exception in the law that grants protection to husbands from being prosecuted for non-consensual sexual intercourse with their wives and the other refusing to hold it unconstitutional.
(With PTI inputs)