Law & Justice
In the Constitution of India, article 14 guarantees that all people shall be equally protected by the laws of the country. Article 21 says that no citizen can be denied his life and liberty except by law. The legal issue is whether the embryo in the womb can be defined as a citizen of India.
If it is considered that life begins after the union of the male sperm and fertilised egg and the fusion of the nuclei to form a zygote, birth has been given to a new person, a citizen, at that very moment, because the zygote shows ‘organisation, movement, growth, reproduction and adaptation at the molecular level’, as defined in Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary that has worldwide acceptance as an authoritative reference book. In that case, foeticide is homicide or murder of a person and should be treated a crime.
Even if this definition is unacceptable, there are three acts passed by the Indian Parliament in this regard. These are Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1971, Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act of 1994 and Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 2002.
The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, says that abortion is legal only under certain conditions and the decision has to be taken by a registered medical practitioner in the case pregnancy up to 12 weeks and two registered medical practitioners in the case of pregnancy from 12 to 20 weeks. No abortion is allowed after 20 weeks. The medical practitioner/s must form their opinion in good faith that the continuation of the pregnancy will expose the pregnant woman to risk her life or be subject to grave physical or mental health risks or that the child will suffer from severe physical or mental abnormalities. Lunatics and minors below 18 are allowed to terminate pregnancy with the permission of their guardian. The reasons included as ‘exposing the pregnant woman to severe physical or mental health risks’ include pregnancy resulting from rape and pregnancy induced by the failure of any contraceptive device or technique used by a married couple.
The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 2002, says that no place or doctor is allowed to conduct prenatal diagnostic techniques except for the purpose of detection of one or more of chromosomal abnormalities, genetic metabolic diseases, haemoglobinopathies, sex-linked genetic diseases or congenital abnormalities. This Act also prohibits the communication, by word, sign or any other manner, the sex of the foetus to anybody, including the pregnant woman, her relatives or other persons. Everyone running the diagnostic unit, those who conduct the test, anyone advertising sex selection, mediators including doctors who refer the case for diagnosis and relatives of the pregnant woman are guilty. The pregnant woman is not guilty as long as she is not proved guilty of complicity.
This Act is very effective if properly implemented as Mr. Arvind Kumar, the collector of Hyderabad district has shown. He took over as the District Collector in 2004, when Hyderabad had the lowest sex ratio in the State. He issued notices to 361 Ultra-Sound Scanning Centres and did proper follow up. Licences of 91 centres were cancelled, 83 machines were seized and 3 suppliers were prosecuted for supplying machines to unregistered clinics. There was marked increase in the sex ratio of new born babies.
However, in most parts of the country, the implementation of the Acts is very half-hearted to say the least. Data available up to May 2006 say that as many as 22 out of 35 states in India had not reported a single case of violation of the act since it came into force. The case of Una District in Himachal Pradesh is enough to convince anyone how ineffective the Acts are. There are 174 Ultra-Sound Scanning units, in the private sector alone, with 86 more in the government sector, and with their help, the sex ratio has been coming down as low as below 500 in 24 Panchayats and below 200 in 2 Panchayats, with 111 in one Panchayat. With everybody knowing the working of this systematic and brutal murder of embryos, action has been taken against only one unit. Anybody can guess what must have happened. So, the legal provisions are not being effectively used against this crime.
There are some well-based criticisms against these laws like the non-inclusion of sex-selection techniques other than ultra-sonic scanning in the Act of 2002 and the very loose definition of ‘severe physical or mental health risks’ in the Act of 1971. However, what is lacking is not so much the provisions of the laws but the strict implementation of the laws. As in any other case, the official excuses will be ‘inadequacy of staff’ and ‘lack of funds’. But, this issue is so serious that the people of India should wake up and make up for the dereliction of duty on the part of the officials.