A woman, who had been orphaned was living in a government institution. She had the mental capacity of a nine-year-old. She did not have any familial support and therefore relied fully on the State for her care. She was raped and subsequently became pregnant while she was living in the institution. The Institution staff discovered her pregnancy when she was at nine weeks gestation. Upon this discovery, the government of Chandigarh filed a criminal case in the police station and constituted a medical board to evaluate the mental status of the woman. The medical board opined that the woman had an intellectual disability. Another government-constituted medical board opined that the woman’s pregnancy shall be terminated. The government then filed a petition with the High Court of Punjab and Haryana (“High Court”) requesting permission to terminate the pregnancy.
The High Court established an independent expert body of medical experts and judges to investigate the facts and to provide support to the High Court in its decision. The expert body recommended that, even though the victim was “unable to appreciate and understand the consequences of her own future and that of the child she is bearing,” her condition did not warrant termination of pregnancy. Furthermore, the expert body found that the woman wanted to continue the pregnancy. Nonetheless, the High Court granted Respondent permission to terminate the pregnancy. The woman/Appellant approached the Supreme Court challenging the decision of the High Court.
At the time of the appeal, the woman was 19 weeks into her pregnancy, and the statutory limit in India only permitted abortion up to 20 weeks gestation under Section 3 of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act 1971 (“MTP Act”). This case hinged on Section 3 of the “MTP Act”, which permits access to abortion under certain conditions including the woman’s consent, the stage of the pregnancy, and the woman’s mental and physical health, as well as the health of the fetus.
The Court determined (1) whether the High Court could grant permission to terminate pregnancy without the woman’s consent, and (2) if the woman does not have the capacity to consent, what standards the Court should apply to exercise ‘Parens Patriae’ jurisdiction.
The Court examined Section 3 of the MTP Act, which highlights the importance of the woman’s consent to termination, and the right to liberty in the Constitution of India (“Constitution”) to determine that forcible termination would violate Appellant’s rights to liberty and reproductive choice. The Court linked a woman’s reproductive right to her right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution, the Court noted that reproductive rights were a dimension of a woman’s liberty rights, and as such her rights to “privacy, dignity and bodily integrity” should be respected. The Court further stated that reproductive rights included the right to complete a pregnancy to full term.
The Court examined the Expert Body’s findings, noting that the Appellant knew she was pregnant and was keen to have the child. However, the Court noted that the Appellant was not able to understand the consequences of having a child and the great life changes it would entail. The Court also noted that the Expert Body found that the Appellant was not capable of caring for the child on her own and would thus need social support and supervision. The Court also determined that the Appellant had capacity to consent because she was not a minor nor did her intellectual disability warrant her consent to be negated and replaced by the State’s decision. The Court held that the MTP Act “clearly respects the personal autonomy” of persons with intellectual disabilities who are above the age of majority. After examining legislation on mental disability, the Court identified a legal difference between intellectual disabilities and mental illness. Under the MTP Act, a guardian can make decisions on behalf of a person with mental illness, but not on behalf of a person with an intellectual disability. The Court held that consent of the woman being an essential requirement under the MTP Act, its dilution could not be allowed as that would “amount to an arbitrary and unreasonable restriction on the reproductive rights of the victim.” In light of these findings, the Court determined that Appellant’s consent is required for the termination, and absent her consent the termination procedure could not take place.
On the nature and scope of a woman’s reproductive right, the Court held that though a woman had full rights over her body, she only had a “qualified right to abortion.” According to the Court, this right was qualified since there was a “compelling state interest” to protect the life of the prospective child. The MTP Act embodied the qualifications or reasonable restriction on the exercise of the right. The Court also referred to the right to equality as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons (1971) to support personal autonomy in the context of intellectual disability and the MTP Act. The Court also stated that India, as a Party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, was obligated to respect the rights therein.
The Court disagreed with the High Court’s application of a “substituted judgment test” under the common law doctrine of Parens Patriae. In light of the Expert Body’s findings, the Court applied the best interest test, since delay in intellectual development was not the same as mental incapacity. The Court further determined that the High Court’s decision granting the termination was not in Appellant’s best interest. The Court reasoned that forced termination of the pregnancy would be high risk since the pregnancy was in its 19th week, and could create severe emotional stress for Appellant because she had not consented to the procedure.
Therefore, the Court issued a stay in the lower court’s judgment, effectively denying the termination.