The Supreme Court of India has delivered a significant verdict, overturning the conviction of a woman sentenced to life imprisonment for the alleged murder of her newborn child. The ruling, handed down on Thursday, underscores the principle that a woman cannot be compelled to disclose private details about her reproductive choices.
The case, dating back to 2004 in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, revolved around a woman who, abandoned by her husband, became pregnant with another man’s child. Subsequently, the body of a deceased child was discovered, leading to the woman’s conviction. The woman maintained that she had suffered a miscarriage. Upon hearing her appeal, the apex court reevaluated the evidence and witness statements and concluded that her conviction rested solely on circumstantial evidence. None of the witnesses could definitively establish, beyond reasonable doubt, the child’s relationship with the woman.
The court then grappled with the question of whether the woman should have been compelled to disclose details of her relationship with the deceased child or her miscarriage in her statement to the trial court, particularly in the absence of any prosecutorial evidence supporting such claims. The court ruled against such compulsion, asserting that the right to privacy is a sacrosanct principle, and the judiciary must intervene when deeply ingrained structures of injustice and persecution, rooted in patriarchy, infringe upon constitutional freedoms.
The ruling draws upon the court’s landmark 2017 decision, which recognized the right to privacy as an inherent fundamental right, intertwined with the right to life. In that decision, the court affirmed that “family, marriage, procreation, and sexual orientation are integral to the dignity of the individual.” In the present case, the court reiterated a woman’s entitlement to bodily autonomy and the ability to make autonomous reproductive choices.
The court emphasized that criminal law should not be utilized to enforce societal moral standards. It noted that both the Trial Court and the High Court had erred significantly by primarily convicting the woman based on her solitary living situation, marital abandonment, and pregnancy, highlighting the flaws in their approach.