An individual must have the right to survive independently

Supreme Court rejected a woman's plea to abort her 26-week-old foetus, which was diagnosed with Down's Syndrome.

Maternal rights versus foetal rights - abortion occupies centre stage in world politics today. Closer home, the Supreme Court rejected a woman's plea to abort her 26-week-old foetus, which was diagnosed with Down's Syndrome. Do the rights of the mother supercede those of her unborn child? Padmashri Dr Kamini Rao, a pioneer in the field of assisted reproduction, talks to Joyeeta Chakravorty about some of the hard truths concerning childbirth and abortion.

The debate around abortion continues to rage across the world with a woman's rights as a mother brought sharply to the fore. Recently, the Supreme Court rejected the plea of an expecting mother to abort her 26-week-old fetus, which had been diagnosed with Down's Syndrome.

Here in Bengaluru, Dr Kamini Rao, a pioneer in the field of Assisted Reproduction, never shies away from the difficult questions. Seated in her office at Milann, Bengaluru, Dr Rao opens up about the hard-hitting truths that surround women's fertility and her rights as a mother.

"I stand by the Supreme Court's decision," Dr Rao said firmly. "As I see it, this is not just about an individual case, it involves setting a precedent. A dangerous one at that." Acknowledging that there are always two sides to an argument, she said, "It is ethically permissible because raising a child with Down's Syndrome, especially if you don't accept it mentally, will harm both the family and the child. There are pros and cons. Both arguments are backed by fact and at the end of the day, it's a matter of personal opinion."

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court bench delcared that the abortion of a fetus that is over 20-weeks old can only be allowed under two conditions: if the mother's life is in danger or the foetus has no chance of survival. Despite the fact that Down's Syndrome results in physical and medical abnormalities, it was ruled that there was no serious threat to the life of the mother or her child. "I don't want to get into the ethics of the case or dispute foetal rights versus maternal rights," Dr Rao declared. "We may, however, argue that this is ethically not permissible because a child's right to life is being taken away over a disability that wasn't in their control in the first place."

Dr Rao has, over the course of her career, worked with thousands of couples from India and abroad. "Legally speaking, abortion in India is only legal up to the 20th week," she said, referring to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act. "The Supreme Court verdict is in keeping with the law of the land."

The Central government is now planning to extend the abortion cut-off to 24-weeks, as laid out in the new MTP amendment draft bill 2014, which is still to be passed. "Hopefully, it will bring some measure of relief in cases like this one," Dr Rao remarks.

Even so, the debate over maternal rights versus foetal rights is a relevant one - "We can't just sit down to discuss the mother. An individual must be given the right to survive independently," she said. "Surviving with Down's Syndrome is different today - there are a number of options for support. Also, if the abnormality wasn't discovered during the scan in the 12th week, the ultrasound should have been done up to 24 weeks."

This is an argument that has no logical end. "Today, we say 26-weeks is permissible for abortion. Then, it will be 28 and 30. Where does this end?" As Dr Rao says, philosophically, "One cannot play God with someone's life." Even your own baby!