Case Comment – Principal Secretary, Health and Family Welfare, Govt of NCT Delhi

X v. Principal Secretary, Health and Family Welfare, Govt of NCT Delhi

COURT: The Supreme Court of India

Civil Appeal No 5802 of 2022 (Arising out of SLP (C) No 12612 of 2022)

PETITIONER: X  

RESPONDENT (s): Principal Secretary, Health and Family Welfare, Govt of NCT Delhi

BENCH:: Hon’Ble Dr. Chandrachud, Hon’Ble Ms. Kohli, Pamidighantam Sri Narasimha

DATE OF THE CASE: September 29, 2022

LEGAL PROVISIONS: MTP, 1971, Rule 3B of the MTPR, 2003[1]

FACTS OF THE CASE:

 Based on the details of the case, the appellant is a citizen of India and a resident of Manipur on a permanent basis. She resides in New Delhi right now.

 A 25-year-old unmarried woman had approached the Delhi High Court in the past, in search of legal help to terminate her 23-week pregnancy. She had stated that her pregnancy was the outcome of a consensual relationship[2]. However, she was unable to proceed with the childbirth because of her unmarried status, inability to financially support and care for a child due to the absence of a means of livelihood and her partner had declined to marry her .

The appellant requested authorization to end her pregnancy in accordance with Rule 3B(c) of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Rule 2003 and Section 3(2)(b) of the Medical Termination Pregnancy Act 1971 in her appeal. She applied for a criminal miscellaneous order in order to temporarily terminate her pregnancy. It is important to note that the legislation did not aim to make any distinctions between married and unmarried women in terms of their ability to decide to choose to carry their pregnancy to term. Importantly, these rights are in accordance with the Constitution’s Article 21 stipulations.

The High Court concluded in its ruling on July 15, 2022, that the particular facts of the case precluded the use of section 3(2) of the MTP Act. The appellant was legally disqualified under any of the MTP Act’s sub-clauses, as an unmarried lady who was pregnant due to the consequence of a consenting relationship,

On July 21, 2022, an appeal was filed in response to the High Court order. By modifying the ruling of the High Court and allowing the plaintiff to end her pregnancy, this Court issued an order on July 21, 2022.

ISSUE RAISED

Whether theRule 3B of the MTP Rules, 2003 discriminates against unmarried women and denies them the right to have a safe and legal abortion.

CONTENTION

Arguments from Petitioner’s side

1. The petitioner submitted that the provisions of Section 3(2) (b) of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act[3] and Rule 3B of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Rules were presented as part of their submission, contending that they were arbitrary and discriminatory.

2. The petitioner further submitted that there is a violation of Article 14 of the Constitution of India, by discounting unmarried women in their scope, supporting inequity on the basis of a woman’s marital status.

3. Dr. Amit Mishra, the appellant’s counsel, presented the following arguments:

  • The appellant, an unmarried woman, was in a situation where she was refused marriage by her mate. She was reluctant to continue the pregnancy to term and give birth to a kid outside of marriage because of her financial limitations and lack of job.
  • She was also not mentally equipped to care for a child on her own, and doing so would seriously compromise her physical and mental health. She was also worried about the stigma associated with being an unwed mother in society.
  • Dr. Mishra claimed that Section 3(2)(b) of the MTP Act and Rule 3B of the MTP Rules were arbitrary and discriminatory. Since unmarried women were specifically left out, Article 14 of the Constitution, which ensures equality before the law, was broken by this discrimination based on marital status.
  • The court received assistance from Ms. Aishwarya Bhati, a senior attorney and Additional Solicitor General, in interpreting Section 3(2) of the MTP Act and Rule 3B(c) of the MTP Rules[4].

Arguments from Respondent’s side

1. The respondents stated that unmarried or single women who are in committed relationships are covered by Rule 3B(c) of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Rules. They provided the following arguments to back up their claim:-

Rule 3B(c)’s definition of “change of marital status” should be read as “change in the status of a relationship,” which would encompass women who are unmarried or single as well as those who are not divorced but are separated or have been abandoned[5].

  • ❖    Live-in relationships are equal to marriages because the woman is entitled to maintenance in both situations. It is significant to remember that a number of national laws, such as the MTP Act, do not distinguish between married and unmarried or single women.
  • ❖    Women are entitled to personal integrity, self-determination, also the right to bear children. They have the right to use their decision-making freedom however they see fit.

RATIONALE

The court stated that there is no valid reason to exclude unmarried or single women from the application of Rule 3B of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Rules. It was determined that such a constrained interpretation contravenes Article 14 of the Constitution3, which protects the right to equality. The court came to the conclusion that a strict reading of Rule 3B, which limits its applicability to married women, would lead to prejudice against single women and would be a contravention of Article 14 of the Constitution. As per the Article 14[6], the state is required to guarantee equal treatment for everyone in the eyes of law and equivalent safety under the law. Contravening the tenets of Article 14 would be to forbid married women from accessing abortion while allowing unmarried or single pregnant women whose pregnancies are between twenty and twenty-four weeks to do so.

 The court also observed that “The law shouldn’t choose those who are beneficiaries of a statute based on limiting traditional views of what constitutes “permissible sex,” as this casts them in an unfair light and eliminates them depending on their unique circumstances. An unmarried woman has the same freedom of choice regarding having children as a married woman when it comes to her reproductive autonomy, dignity, and privacy under Article 213.

 The Supreme Court was asked to rule on the legitimacy of this relief in accordance to Rule 3B of the MTPR and the court also reached a noteworthy finding and judgement, noting that married women might also be victims of sexual assault or rape in addition to unmarried or single women. The judge ruled that a woman could expect childbirth as an upshot of her own spouse by persecuting her without permission or consent. The court emphasised the significance of acknowledging that rape is a form of intimate partner abuse that does exist. It emphasised the necessity of addressing and dispelling the false notion that only strangers are accountable for sexual and gender-based violence.

Even the distinction between raping an unmarried woman by a man and raping a married woman by her husband was dismissed by the court. Additionally, it questioned the notion that a husband cannot rape his wife. The court decided that “marital rape” is also encompassed into the definition’s purview of “rape” as used in Rule 3B of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act. The court made it clear that, despite Indian Penal Code[7] Exception 2 to Section 375, the term “sexual assault” or “rape” as defined in Rule 3B(a) encompasses situations in which a husband sexually assaults or rapes his wife.

The court ruled that the right to reproductive autonomy applied equally to married and unmarried women[8].

DEFECTS OF LAW  

In some circumstances, the new law raises the gestational restriction for abortion from 20 to 24 weeks. Some contend that this cap may still be restricted and may not take into account particular circumstances in which late-term abortions may be required because of foetal abnormalities or risks to the woman’s health.

However, women seeking prompt medical attention may experience delays and added stress due to the complex and lengthy procedure of getting approval from Medical Boards.

INFERENCE

The decision has drawn praise for recognising unmarried women’s ability to request the termination of pregnancies originating from consensual relationships. The court determined that unmarried women with pregnancies resulting from consensual relationships are included in the groups of women eligible for abortion between 20 and 24 weeks of pregnancy under Rule 3B of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Rules1. These women fall within the category of pregnant women suffering a change in marital status who are eligible for pregnancy termination. Thus, the decision is a step towards the acknowledgement of women’s rights regarding their physical and reproductive autonomy.

The court found it appropriate to include marital rape in the definition of “rape” under Rule 3B (a) of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Rules because it recognised that a woman can have non-consensual sexual intercourse with her spouse. As a result, women who have been the victims of marital rape are allowed to end their pregnancies without their husbands’ consent. This judgement has received high praise for being substantial and ground-breaking5.

In conclusion, this ruling is worthy of praise as it appreciates the value of bodily and reproductive autonomy of women disregarding any discrimination on any grounds and it highlights a progressive attitude towards women’s rights. The ruling also represents the significance of understanding and exercising laws according to the situations like which the court ruled by extending the range of situations in which abortion is permissible and addressing the problem of marital rape.

 Deepanjana Chakraborty

University of Engineering and Management


[1] MTPR, Rule3 (b), 2003

[2] Kshitiz singh, All women have the right to safe and legal abortions, THE EDULAW, (28 June 2023, 10:15 PM), https://portal.theedulaw.com/SingleNotes?title=case-analysis–all-women-have-the-right-to-safe-and-legal-abortions#:~:text=The%20Supreme%20Court%20ruled%20that,Govt%20of%20NCT%20of%20Delhi.

[3] MTP Act, 1971.

[4] INDIANKANOON, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/123985596/, (22 June, 2023).

[5] Rashmi Singh & Shreya Singh, X VERSUS THE PRINCIPAL

SECRETARY, HEALTH AND FAMILY WELFARE DEPARTMENT, GOVT. OF NCT OF DELHI & ANR, 31 SUPR. AMI. 1, 1-5 (2022), https://supremoamicus.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Rashmi-Singh-Shreya-Singh.pdf

[6] CONS. OF. IND, 1950.

[7] IPC, SC.375, 1860.

[8]  Bharath Kancharla, Supreme Court rules that all women are entitled to safe & legal abortion, the distinction between married and unmarried women is unconstitutional, FACTLY, (28 june 2023, 10:33 PM), https://factly.in/review-supreme-court-rules-that-all-women-are-entitled-to-safe-legal-abortion-the-distinction-between-married-and-unmarried-women-is-unconstitutional/. 

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