Where are We Now in the Abortion Debate: The Sri Lankan Spectrum (Part I) [For bakamoono.lk]

(Note: A big part of the conversation on sexual and reproductive health and rights in Sri Lanka (and indeed globally) is the one on the legalization of and safe access to abortion - also sometimes known as the pro-life vs pro-choice debate. This 3-part series on the topic was written exclusively for bakamoono.lk and was first published on the site. It attempts to plot where this conversation has gone, where it is right now, and where it needs to go in a Sri Lankan context. 

Read Part I here and Part II here 

For information on abortion, what it entails and other facts please see here)




Introduction and Background
In 2017 public debate raged over proposals that were made to amend the law on abortion in Sri Lanka, and sensitivities of the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to the reforms remain at the forefront. Last month the Grassrooted Trust had a script rejected by the Censor Board that was planned for performance at their annual V-Day production. The script was a monologue centered around the conversation on abortion reforms and the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on the issue. The reasoning given was that it was ‘not the right time’ for such a script. When the right time will be for this conversation outside of political gatherings and the media is anyone’s guess.

The Sri Lanka Journal of Medicine estimates that nearly 700 abortions take place in the country daily, and The Ministry of Health stated in 2016 that 658 abortions are performed in Sri Lanka daily and that it is the second or third cause of maternal mortality, with majority being undertaken by married women. Abortion laws in Sri Lanka are among the strictest in the world, only allowing termination of pregnancy in the circumstance that the mother’s life is in danger as per Section 303 of the Penal Code of 1883. The penalty for causing a woman to miscarry (with or without her consent) is up to three years’ imprisonment and/or a fine.

While the debate over the proposals was extensive, it is important to remember that this is not the first-time reforms have been proposed or suggested:

In 1995 The Ministry of Justice presented Penal Code (Amendment) Bill for rape and fetal impairments in Parliament which was withdrawn by the Minister following a vigorous debate.
In 2011 the National Action Plan for Human Rights 2011-2016 included the goal to decriminalize abortion for rape and major congenital abnormalities
In 2013 the Law Commission proposals called for legalization in the case of rape and fetal impairment
The current debate revolves around the recommendations made following the findings of the Justice Aluvihare Special Committee which are:

To decriminalize abortion and allow for medical termination of pregnancies in the specific circumstances of: Rape and incest; The pregnancy occurring in a girl below the age of 16 (a victim of statutory rape); Serious fetal impairment  
To provide for a procedure for medical termination of pregnancies on one of the above grounds that will be rigorously regulated to prevent the abuse of the process  
To enact/amend legislation as appropriate to facilitate the inclusion of the above provisions.  
The conversation seems to have first been sparked in January 2017 – an article published in the Daily Mirror reported that Cabinet approval was being sought to legislate the reforms and “For this purpose, the government is seeking to draft separate legislations as amendments to the Penal Code and to the Code of Criminal Procedure Act to provide for it. The Justice Ministry has initiated action”. The then-Minister of Justice Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said that he was positive about this decision saying, “We consulted the opinions of a panel of experts representing the medical, religious and other fields.  Through this we are trying to save the life of the mother under three circumstances.  I don’t think there will be much challenges since we went through a long process in acquainting the concerns. In another three weeks’ time we will be presenting this proposal in Parliament”.

Political Reaction and Statements on the Reforms
The conversation was largely driven to public attention by mainstream media following a press conference held by the Sri Lanka College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (SLCOG) in August 2017. The Daily News reported that Consultant Community Physician Dr. Kapila Jayaratne addressing a press conference at the Health Education Bureau in Colombo said the Cabinet paper had already received Cabinet approval and that the Bill was to be brought to Parliament soon. “Once the law is enacted, the mothers will receive the opportunity to decide whether to abort the fetus or go ahead with the pregnancy. The decision will be up to the mother. But the recommendation will be made by two consultants and it will be done only at a state hospital,” he said. The Daily FT at the same time reported that “Cabinet last week approved a draft Bill that will be presented to Parliament allowing the abortion of pregnancies under two specific circumstances. Namely, when the pregnant woman is carrying a fetus with lethal congenital malformation, and/or when the pregnancy is a result of rape” quoting “a senior Health Ministry official”. Extensive searching and inquiries to date have not yielded any success in obtaining a copy of the said Cabinet paper, and Dr. Jayaratne has subsequently said he was misquoted by the media – that he had said Cabinet had simply agreed to consider it.

It was not long before the conversation took a negative turn. First, Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne said at a media briefing that the status of the legalization initiative was still just a “proposal” but had not been approved by the Cabinet. This was then followed by other media reports that the drafting of the Bill was on hold, due to President Maithripala Sirisena wanting the religious leaders to consult on it and they were unable to reach a consensus. In early September 2017 The Sunday Leader reported that Min. Senaratne had said the proposal to amend the law had not been put forward to the Health Ministry or the Government and it was only a discussion that had taken place and once the proposal was received it would be discussed by the cabinet. Minster of Christian Affairs John Amaratunga at the same time was reported to have said he had received an assurance from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that abortion will not be legalized and that even if the cabinet considers it, both he and the Prime Minister would strongly oppose. 

Response from the Roman Catholic Church and other Religious Opposition
Following the reports in the media was a statement from the Roman Catholic Church making it clear that they opposed all proposed reforms. President of the Bishop’s Conference Bishop Winston Fernando said: “No one has a right to take life. Natural birth to natural death, life is sacred. And we believe life begins at the moment of conception.” And for that reason, he said that the Roman Catholic Church opposes any form of abortion whatsoever. Catholic Bishops Conference President Rt. Rev. Dr. J. Winston S. Fernando in a letter said the matter was discussed in-depth during a plenary meeting held in August and said “We say no to abortion under any circumstances. We believe that the precious life of a human being starts at the very moment of conception and is sacred,” he said and underscored the fact that no one had the right to tamper with human life in any way. Cardinal Malcom Ranjit is reported to have said that in the case of pregnancies resulting from rape and incest, the Church would institutionalize those children in their orphanages and care homes.

This stance from the Roman Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has been viewed as not keeping in line with the incremental steps the Church and Pope have taken, that has been lauded as a softening of their stance. In November 2016 The Guardian reported that Pope Francis indefinitely extended priests’ right to grant forgiveness for women who have had an abortion to be absolved. Traditionally, abortion was considered such a grave sin that only a bishop could absolve a repentant woman, or a priest given special permission by a bishop. In the apostolic letter released, he wrote: “I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life. In the same way, however, I can and must [state] that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father”. In June 2017 among the 45 new members Pope Francis appointed to the Pontifical Academy for Life was Anglican minister who has argued that abortion should be legal until “18 weeks after conception” named Nigel Biggar, a Professor from the University of Oxford. 

The positive and hopeful the interpretation of these statements are not being ignored by the Roman Catholic Church’s representatives in Sri Lanka. Cardinal Ranjith Malcolm has said a popular misconception is being created in certain quarters that Pope Francis is agreeable to abortion. "This is based on his having allowed absolution for the grave sin of abortion to be also extended to priests. This explanation is completely wrong and not at all factual," said the Cardinal in a letter to priests and the faithful on April 8. He called on people to pray in a very special way for all the unborn babies and to pray that society itself will give up this horrendous crime and praise God through its commitment to life saying, “I invite you all to spread this message to all you meet that abortion is murder,".

The Roman Catholic Church in Sri Lanka while the most vociferous were not the only voices from religious leaders to speak out against the proposed reforms. During a Congress of Religions meeting on Sept. 14 in Colombo, religious leaders from the Christian, Buddhist and Muslim communities expressed their strong opposition to the bill, including the now deceased Venerable Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thero, who said that according to Buddhist doctrine abortion constitutes the taking of a human life. 

(To Be Continued)


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