Colombo Despatch | International

Revisiting the debate on abortion law

In August this year, Sri Lanka’s Cabinet approved a draft Bill allowing abortion under two circumstances — when the foetus is diagnosed with a lethal congenital malformation or when the pregnancy is caused by rape.

Seen by many as a potentially significant reform to the country’s existing law, which permits abortion only to save a woman’s life, the move sparked a spontaneous debate. Views were divided mostly along the lines of religion, public and maternal health, and women’s sexual and reproductive rights — in that order of visibility and prominence. This is not the first time the country is trying to liberalise its existing law under the Penal Code of 1883. While earlier efforts to broaden the Colonial-era legislation failed, they triggered key debates around abortion in Sri Lanka.

Referring to a parliamentary debate in the 1990s, Sri Lankan human rights activist and scholar Sunila Abeysekera wrote in her paper titled ‘Abortion in Sri Lanka in the context of women’s human rights’ in 1997: “The coming together of conservative religious and political opinions against women’s right to control their sexuality and reproduction, as reflected in this debate, is of grave concern for women in Sri Lanka.”

The terms of the debate have barely shifted in the 20 years since, going by Human Rights Commission Chairperson Deepika Udagama’s recent observation that public policy on health matters should not be allowed to be dictated by religious lobbyists. “The Commission respects the religious views and freedom of speech of everybody, but these are issues that ought not to be decided on the basis of religious beliefs,” she said, according to a report in the State-run Daily News.

Days after the Cabinet decision, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka voiced its opposition. Their counterparts among Buddhist and Muslim organisations joined the chorus. As opposition grew louder, doctors from the Health Ministry briefed a group of religious leaders representing different faiths. The photograph of the meeting, which appeared in newspapers, was heavily criticised on social media by those who found a room full of men discussing the issue ironic. Not surprisingly, the proposed Bill was put on hold.

Broader questions

However, the debate has raised some broader questions for those on either side of it to consider. One pertains to the question of “choice” in maternal and public health. What does choice mean when access to safe abortions is limited to those who can afford them? Health Ministry officials note that 658 illegal abortions are performed in the country every day. Sri Lanka has the lowest maternal mortality ratio — the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in a given period — in the region. It was 32 in 2013. At the same time, 10% to 12% of maternal deaths in Sri Lanka are reportedly due to unsafe abortion. Experts in the field of community medicine note that while maternity services are available for free in the public health sector, the legal implications of abortion virtually prevent government hospitals from offering the service. The private sector, however, offers it stealthily, public health practitioners observe.

Another question is to do with how the woman, her health and her choice figure in these debates? “Finding the means in law to take women into account in a way that acknowledges women’s role as social and biological reproducers of society, and respects women’s bodily integrity and sexual autonomy — and yet does not confine women because of their bodies — remains a fundamental challenge to activism in this arena,” Ms. Abeyesekera wrote in 1997. It still does.

Meera Srinivasan works for The Hindu and is based in Colombo

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 4:19:47 PM |

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