INDIA – Medical boards for abortions after 24 weeks not feasible, a new study has found

Photo: Prof Dipika Jain

A panel of doctors is intended to decide on every termination of pregnancy beyond 24 weeks in India, as proposed in the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Amendment Bill, 2020. However, this is not feasible as 82% of these posts are lying vacant across the country, according to a study just published by the Centre for Justice, Law and Society at the OP Jindal Law Global School, whose chief author is Prof Dipika Jain.

The MTP Bill was passed in the lower house of the Indian parliament in March 2020, and is likely to be brought before the upper house during the Budget Session, which began several days ago and will finish on 13 February 2021.

The MTP Bill proposes several amendments, including the constitution of a Medical Board in all 28 States and 9 Union Territories (UT) of India. These boards will decide whether to allow pregnancies beyond 24 weeks in cases of fetal abnormality to take place. According to the bill, each board should have one gynaecologist, one radiologist or sonologist, one paediatrician, and other members as prescribed by each State/UT government.

However, a recent study, which analysed district-wise availability of specialists, including surgeons, obstetricians and gynaecologists, physicians and paediatricians, found that in the years 2015-2019, the shortfall in these posts hovered between 71% and 82%. For the year 2019, of a total of 21,296 vacancies in the country, only 3,880 were filled, leaving a shortfall of 81.8%. The shortfall was starker in the northeast where Sikkim, Mizoram and Manipur had a total absence of obstetricians and gynaecologists, and a near total absence of paediatricians. Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya had a 100% shortage of paediatricians.

The data come from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s Rural Health Survey, which provides details of vacancies filled at secondary healthcare centres. Similar data for urban areas were unavailable.

“The MTP Bill is not set in a rights-based framework and Medical Boards are draconian and invasive as they strip away autonomy from the pregnant person. Our study indicates a severe lack of doctors across India and this will make the setting up of Boards unfeasible. Even if the Boards are set up, pregnant persons who are in more remote areas of the country will incur many costs in travelling and this will add to their financial burden. This legal reform will make access to abortion more challenging for many people, especially those from marginalised groups,” said Prof Jain.

SOURCE: The Hindu, by Jagriti Chandra, 31 January 2021 ; PHOTO: Prof Dipika Jain