‘The Unborn Have the Right to Life’: Court Verdict Cheers Indian Church, but Challenges Remain

India has recently further liberalized its abortion law, and even among Christians, smaller families are increasingly the norm.

The public pro-life exhibition of V4L (We for Life), the initiative of a  Catholic lay group from Kerala, spreads awareness against abortion in New Delhi.
The public pro-life exhibition of V4L (We for Life), the initiative of a Catholic lay group from Kerala, spreads awareness against abortion in New Delhi. (photo: 2014 photo by Anto Akkara)

KERALA, India — The Church in India is excited over an unprecedented court verdict in the state of Kerala, declaring categorically that “the unborn have the right to life.”

But it has an onerous task in hand to spread this pro-life message in a country where millions of sex-selective abortions of unborn girls take place and where the Church itself is “alarmed” by the low birth rate among its flock, especially in the Christian heartland of southern Kerala state.

“The verdict of the Kerala High Court is extremely positive, though abortion as such is upheld legally in India,” said Archbishop Thomas Mar Koorilos, chairman of the Doctrinal Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI). 

“We are happy with this verdict. The Church stands for the unborn child, that it should be cared for and looked after,” Archbishop Koorilos, who heads the Thiruvalla Archdiocese of the Syro-Malankara Rite, told the Register Sept. 18.

Archbishop Koorilos’ reaction arose from the categorical verdict from Kerala High Court (high courts are the top courts in Indian states ), responding to a petition by a 31-week pregnant woman seeking abortion who claimed that her unborn child had a deformity. 

As abortion beyond 24 weeks of pregnancy is not allowed in India except in cases of substantial fetal deformities, the court set up a medical board that reported that the deformity of the unborn child was not serious and that  the pregnancy posed no danger to the mother.

In a country where hundreds of thousands of female feticides are carried out despite laws intended to prevent them, the rare categorical verdict in Kerala affirming the right to life of the unborn has been hailed.

“We welcome the judgment of the Kerala High Court that protects the right of the unborn child,” said Tehmina Arora, director of the Indian affiliate of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

“We are encouraged by this judgment that every child enjoys the right to life. Sadly, too often, the unborn child is vulnerable even in her mother’s womb,” said Arora, a lawyer practicing in the federal Supreme Court of India.

ADF runs a campaign against rampant female feticide and for protection of girl children called Vanishing Girls. It highlights how sex-selective abortion devastates lives, not just of the unborn girl child and the mother, but also the whole of Indian society.

The 2018 “Economic Survey” of India has acknowledged that 63 million women have gone missing in India in five decades due to sex-selective abortion rooted in the deep-rooted prejudice against girl children. The study also pointed out that 21 million girls remain unwanted in India, The Washington Post reported.

“This verdict gives us a boost,” said Abraham Jacob, a Catholic doctor in Kerala. 

“I have not come across such a strong verdict upholding the right to life of the baby in the womb,” said Jacob, who has been engaged in pro-life activities and awareness programs for three decades.


India’s Abortion Law

The existing legal provision against abortion under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act of 1971 lacks force, Jacob said. Under the terms of the legislation, through which India legalized abortion, any doctor could approve abortion, including even the excuse that a “contraceptive failed,” he noted.

“Under the act, a pregnancy may be terminated up to 20 weeks by a married woman in the case of failure of contraceptive method or device. The bill allows unmarried women to also terminate a pregnancy for this reason,” says the law.

In March, the Indian Parliament amended the MTP legislation, further liberalizing abortion norms. Under the 1971 law, abortion approval within 12 weeks of conception required the opinion of one doctor and two doctors for between 12 and 20 weeks. However, as per the amended MTP passed in March 2021, abortion can be carried out on the advice of one doctor up to 20 weeks and two doctors in cases between 20 and 24 weeks. 

The amendment also introduced a provision for setting up state-level medical boards to decide if a pregnancy may be terminated after 24 weeks in cases of substantial fetal abnormalities. It was in such a case that the Kerala High Court gave the categorical verdict affirming the right to life of the unborn.

“Normally, verdicts in demands for abortion go one way only. But I am thrilled that, here, the court has endorsed what the Church teaches. This is unique. Our people should be made aware of this historic verdict and spread the message,” said Jacob, who conducts pro-life classes across the state.


Encouraging a Pro-Life Culture

“We are extremely happy that the court has given such a crystal-clear verdict upholding the right to life of the unborn,” Father Thomas Vadakkel, secretary of the CBCI’s Doctrinal Commission, told the Register.

The court verdict, he said, is “a powerful tool for the Church in the campaign against abortion.” 

“We will certainly bring it in the awareness programs for the youth, colleges and marriage-preparation courses.”

On the question of the low birth rate among Christians, especially in the Christian heartland of Kerala, even though the local Church remains vocal regarding abortion and other pro-life concerns, Father Vadakkel said, “This is a challenge we must address.”

The early August assembly of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council had expressed “alarm” over the declining birth rate and low growth rate of Christians, compared to Hindus and Muslims in the state. 

A theology professor at St. Thomas Apostolic Seminary in Kottayam, Father Vadakkel listed several factors for this “alarming situation,” including a rise in the number of unmarried Catholics, migration of Catholics for employment, lack of interest in rearing children among some young couples, and friction among couples at the early stages of their marriages.

However, Vincentian Father Robert Chavarananickal, who carries on a campaign encouraging openness to children with the slogan “More Children, More Blessing,” says some Church programs are also inadvertently contributing to the problem among Catholics.

“The Church has put in place a well-organized [mandatory] marriage-preparation course. The big focus in this is NFP (natural family planning) against [artificial] contraceptive options. In the process, the message they get is to avoid children,” said the priest, who conducts special retreats and prayers focusing on the unborn.

Though some of dioceses have started supporting families with four or more children, Father Chavarananickal suggested that the Church should announce a broader policy to assure concrete support for the large families, given the economic pressures.

“We are indirectly promoting a utilitarian culture to the young couple — how to avoid pregnancy and have less children to avoid financial burden,” he said. “The Church must have a critical relook at the content of marriage-preparation courses.”

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