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What happened to the calls for abortion reform?

20 July 2018 Posted by No Comment

19th July 2018, Mount Lavinia

Last week the Daily Mirror published a sensationalist piece on abortion following a Family Health Bureau led event for World Population Day purportedly using UNFPA Sri Lanka data. For many years now the statistic of 1000 abortions a day has been the cause for much consternation among public health practitioners and the general public alike. The writer of the Daily Mirror piece appears to have heard this statistic for the first time, and the shock is palpable.

“Sri Lanka is considered a religious country with Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam being preached even in remote areas and every day on television and radio. Parents and teachers are also expected to guide the children in the right way of living and how to build moral values and character. But if about one thousand voiceless, helpless and innocent unborn children are being killed every day that means the massacre of the innocents amounts to about thirty thousand a month and three hundred and sixty five thousand a year. This is a ruthless form of terrorism, three hundred and sixty five thousand unborn babies being massacred every year while respect for human life and any form of life is preached by all religions.”

Abortion is understandably an emotive issue. Yet this language and sentiment and the lack of response from those who have championed abortion in Sri Lanka, most recently in 2017 during the discussion for potential abortion law reform, is indicative of how little fight there appears left in offering a sensible, facts based approach.

In September 2017 bakamoono.lk published a statement by Human Rights Defenders and Women’s Groups which stated the following:

“We are concerned about the ‘religious’ and moralistic framework given to this debate by some opponents of decriminalization. We assert that this is not a moral or religious matter, it is a matter of women’s human rights, dignity and choice. A response to this debate must be a response to women primarily, regardless of class, caste and circumstance. The position of campaigning for the legalization of abortion is not a moral position – it is simply a position which centers the decision-making power of women, and sees the need to reform outdated, colonial legislation, so that women’s rights and autonomy can be enjoyed in full. While we will continue to campaign and work towards decriminalization of abortion unconditionally, we also support the cabinet’s decision to ease the existing laws criminalizing abortion and we ask the state not to be swayed in this decision.”

In October 2017 bakamoono.lk published an article entitled – Let Women Decide: Some Feminist Perspectives on the ‘Abortion Debate’ which stated the following:

“It seems strange – and yet revealing – to me that even in 2017, when we talk about abortion law, a large part of the conversation is dedicated to handwringing debates on the morality or immorality of abortion itself, while wholly excluding a more critical and analytical look at the historical, cultural and political circumstances which gave us abortion law to begin with and which continue to fuel abortion law even now.”

In December 2017 bakamoono.lk published a Statement from the Catholic community in support of amending Penal Code No. 2 of 1883 and Code of Criminal Procedure Act No. 15 of 1979 which stated the following:

“We support the social conscience of decriminalizing abortion. As Article 6 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, Catholics “not only may but must follow the dictates of conscience rather than the teachings of the Church.” Catholics are obliged to know and thoughtfully consider Catholic teaching, but in the end, a well-formed conscience reigns (7). We support the autonomy of women to make conscience-based decisions. We find that the most powerful backing for the autonomy of women itself comes from the many women detailed throughout Scripture, not least Mother Mary.”

Below is a statement championed by bakamoono.lk that garnered 2800 (approx) signatures in 2017 in support of the government’s attempt to amend the law, which was subsequently sent on to the Ministry of Health who were thought to be at the helm of this proposed ammendment.

We support the process currently underway in cabinet to present the amendment to the abortion law that will allow abortions in two instances:

1.            When the mother carries a foetus with Lethal Congenital Malformation.

2.            When a woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape.

We urge the government to bring this before parliament, and we request ALL parliamentarians to support these amendments, across party lines. The current abortion law does not allow abortions unless caused in good faith for the purpose of saving the life of the woman.

This is grossly inadequate, and forces victims of rape and incest, some as young as twelve, to see their pregnancy through the full term. The physical and psychological trauma that victims of rape and incest undergo is unacceptable and against the democratic principles of the Sri Lanka that celebrates the right to equality. Daughters who suffer incestuous rape by their fathers should not be forced to carry their sibling to full term in Sri Lanka.

The health complications, economic challenges, and quality of life issues that families face due to children who are born with severe foetal abnormalities are often disregarded. The socio-economic realities for many in Sri Lanka do not allow for the levels of care and support required, and the resulting quality of life, sometimes for a brutally short period due to the foetal abnormality, is extremely poor.

The reports of 700(1) plus  abortions a day in Sri Lanka underpin our reality. Most of these are carried out in unsafe and unhygienic conditions giving rise to severe health complications such as septic abortions, infertility, and in some adverse circumstances, death. According to the Family Health Bureau in 2012(2) , maternal deaths due to septic abortions were the THIRD HIGHEST cause (13%) for maternal deaths in Sri Lanka.

Terminating a pregnancy is not a question of morality, it underpins womens’ and girl’s right to make an informed decision whether to proceed with a pregnancy or not. Therefore we urge all citizens to show support to the Ministry of Health and government by lobbying with their respective members of parliament to pass the amendments to expand our current abortion law.

1. Abeykoon A.T.P.L, Estimates of abortion rates in Sri Lanka using Bongaarets Model of Proximate Determinants of Fertility: 4-5


By July 2018 our voices have fallen silent, and we allow once more for a language of murder and mayhem – “the massacre of the innocents” and “ruthless form of terrorism” – to reemerge in the mainstream press. Apart from briefly highlihting the hypocrisy of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s stance on the sanctity of life with reference to his support of the death penalty earlier this month, the silence is deafening.

Perhaps there are grassroots initiatives underway that will end in a groundswell of support for our more compassionate law makers to champion law reform. Yet, where are the op-ed articles and TV debates; the continued dissemination of statements in our three national languages so that they’re understood by all; town hall meetings that will allow for discourse and clarification?

No doubt UNFPA in Sri Lanka and/or the Family Health Bureau had no intention of their World Population Day event on Family Planning Being a Human Right being reduced to such an alarmist diatribe in the press. That said, a response clarifying their position or at the very least denouncing such sensationalist language with regard to abortion, would be welcome. Especially, if abortion rights activists are intent on continuing their fight for the right of the twelve year old child raped by her father to have an abortion and not be forced to carry her sibling to full term. Surely family planning as a human right extends to protecting this child from such a horrific experience?

In the end, perhaps our call for human rights is funding related? Are we stereotypically NGO karayo that flitter and flutter from cause to cause? Do we not have what it takes to protect innocent lives? Are our calls for women’s agency and autonomy, just that, calls, and nothing more; lip service in the face of patriarchal institutions that remain monolithic and unperturbed by our yowling? Government, non-govrnment, and other concerned agencies must come together, long term strategies must be thought through and actioned. We must deliver beyond the rhetoric. If not, shame on us for being a cause for hope for so many women and girls, and couples, across this country.

Related Articles:

Where are we now in the abortion debate: The Sri Lankan Spectrum (Part I) 3rd May 2018

Where are we now in the abortion debate: The Sri Lankan Spectrum (Part II) 8th May 2018 

Where are we now in the abortion debate: The Sri Lankan Spectrum (Part III) 10th May 2018

Courtesy bakamoono.lk

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