From Roe v. Wade to Fetal Pain Legislation: A Reflection of American Jurisprudence on the Indian Milieu of Liberalised Abortion Policies
Debadyuti Banerjee & Ujwala Uppaluri
Volume 2 Issue 4 (2009)
Abortion laws originated in the United Kingdom as early as 1803, but the credit for revolutionizing abortion laws and recognizing the inherent, perhaps inextricable right and liberty of women over their bodies can only be given to the United States – more specifically to the American judiciary. From as early as Roe v. Wade, the American judiciary has been reiterating the inherent right of a woman as a constitutional person, to terminate her pregnancy in the earlier stages and thereafter giving the State a role to play, hence making abortion legal for the first time in the Unites States in 1973. Even though senators and other policy-makers in several, if not all, states of the United States have tried to whittle down the basic premise of Roe v. Wade, it has been emphatically upheld in subsequent cases. After more than thirty years of the pro-abortion movement in the West taking firm root, anti-abortion groups have again taken a radical standby trying to control abortions through the introduction of the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Bill, 2005(commonly known as Fetal Pain Legislation) and as many as twenty-three states in the USA have passed it to be an Act, which would require that abortionists disclose to women the reality that killing an unborn baby by abortion causes pain to the child. It would also require that women who were pregnant for more than twenty weeks be given the choice of adopting anesthesia for their fetuses. Interestingly this move by the legislature was said to find its basis in the judgment of Gonzales v. Carhart where the Supreme Court held that the federal legislation banning partial-birth abortion was constitutional on its face. The issue of fetal pain arose amidst the partial-birth abortion debate. Supporters of the federal legislation argued that partial-birth abortion was excruciatingly painful for the fetus and that banning this abortion procedure would further the state’s legitimate interest in protecting the unborn child. Opponents of the federal ban argued that there was no conclusive scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that a fetus is even capable of feeling pain. As a result of this partial-birth abortion controversy, legislations aimed at acknowledging and assuaging fetal pain during abortion came into being. In India, the debate on abortion laws as embodied in the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 has been swirling since the Bombay High Court’s decision in Dr. Nikhil Dattar & Ors. v. Union of India, where the Court by a strict interpretation of the provisions in the statute, refused to give a lady pregnant with a malformed fetus the right to abort since she was already in her twenty-fourth week of pregnancy. Since then there have been urgent calls to amend the statute as long-standing criticisms of the policy have been brought to the forefront again. It has become critical at this juncture to look at the development of abortion law and policies in the West, particularly in the United States, to gauge where India stands at this moment and whether, if at all, India should be inspired by the western counterpoint or should take caution from the developments therein to further its own interests in striking the perfect balance between liberty, autonomy and freedom of the individual on the one hand and the State’s right to interfere, on the other.