India's top court on Thursday upheld the right of a woman to an abortion up to 24 weeks into pregnancy regardless of marital status, a decision widely hailed by women's rights activists.
The right to abortion has proved contentious globally after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned in June its landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that had legalised the procedure across the United States.
"Even an unmarried woman can undergo abortion up to 24 weeks on par with married women," said Justice D.Y. Chandrachud of India's Supreme Court, holding that a woman's marital status could not decide her right to abort.
A law dating from 1971, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, had limited the procedure to married women, divorcees, widows, minors, "disabled and mentally ill women" and survivors of sexual assault or rape.
"The decision to have or not to have an abortion is borne out of complicated life circumstances, which only the woman can choose on her own terms without external interference or influence," the court ruling said.
It added that every woman should have the "reproductive autonomy" to seek abortion, without consulting a third party.
Thursday's decision came in response to a petition by a woman who said her pregnancy resulted from a consensual relationship but she had sought abortion when the relationship failed.
The ruling is a milestone for the rights of Indian women, activists said.
"It is a first step, it is a progressive step," said Yogita Bhayana, founder of PARI (People Against Rapes in India).
The court added that sexual assault by husbands can be classified as marital rape under the MTP law. Indian law does not consider marital rape an offence, though efforts are being made to change this.
"In an era that includes Dobbs vs Jackson, and makes distinctions between the marital status of women who are raped, this excellent judgment on abortion under the MTP Act hits it out of the park," Karuna Nundy, an advocate specialising in gender law and other areas, said on Twitter.
She was referring to the case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court judgment in June. (Reporting by Suchitra Mohanty and Tanvi Mehta; editing by Clarence Fernandez and Mark Heinrich)