Where are We Now in the Abortion Debate: The Sri Lankan Spectrum (Part III) [for bakamoono.lk]
Read Part I here and Part II here
For information on abortion, what it entails and other facts please see here)
As mentioned before Sri Lanka is among the countries with the most restrictive abortion laws globally. The below images give a snapshot as to the current law in regional countries and some countries who's majority population identifies as Roman Catholic.
Portugal found that 10 years after implementing the reforms, data shows an end to maternal mortality. Uruguay currently has the lowest rates of maternal death in Latin America and attributes this to the legalization of abortion. Sri Lanka is not the first to have faced this question, rather it has the advantage of being able to view the data from a wide spate of countries to make an informed decision.
On the other end of the spectrum, countries like El Salvador and Chile have abortion laws so rigid that women are regularly imprisoned for having miscarriages that occur naturally. In 2018 international media covered the story of Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín who was serving a 30-year sentence for aggravated murder after suffering a still-birth, and Carmen Teodora Vásquez who spent more than 10 years in jail after being convicted of aggravated homicide when she had a miscarriage in 2007.
Choice is Not a Word Used
For all the opinions, data, and theories that have been contributed to this debate – the concept of choice and women’s bodily autonomy has been conspicuously absent. The entire conversation has been centered around patriarchal power dynamics, and the failure to consult women on a choice that should remain in their hands is evident.
Law and law making in Sri Lanka continues to be a political game with little to no consultative process. Religious leaders with influence over their flock (and potential voter bases) continue to have their voices heard and opinions sought, while those whom the issue directly impacts go unheard. It seems that the only voices not being voluntarily consulted in this debate are that of women – despite their bodies and wombs being the focal point of the conversation. Women’s Rights Activists noted on social media when a group of medical doctors representing the Health Ministry met with religious leaders of the Congress of Religions at Sri Sambodhi Maha Viharaya in Colombo in September to explain and discuss about the proposed amendments to abortion laws, not a single woman was present at the discussion. It was startling and disheartening to realize how underrepresented and marginalized women’s voices continue to be even in the light of conversations pertaining to their health. As Meghal Perera writes in a piece for Goundviews, “While people who are against abortion do not need to have one, it is strange that they feel entitled to make this decision on behalf of every fertile woman in Sri Lanka, ignorant of context and untouched by the consequences of their actions”.
It is the concept of choice that urgently needs to be centralized in this conversation – the understanding that reforms to the law do not force anyone to terminate a pregnancy but rather allow for the option of safe, legal abortion by those who wish to have that choice. As the Feminist Catholic Network rightfully pointed out in their statement of support, “the Catholic Church should not rely on secular law to ensure that members of its community follow its teachings. The Bill does not compel anyone to seek abortion. Members of the Catholic community can continue to act of their own free will in accordance with their faith”.
At the heart of it – the proposed reforms are simply a basic step forward and is by no means the end of the road. They do not relate to the issues identified in such research that most women abortion seekers are married and that the primary cause for unwanted pregnancies is the failure to use effective contraception. Rather they address social concerns surrounding conception of life, and scientific evidence is not conclusive as to when a life is independent of the woman who conceived it begins and philosophical views are divided on when personhood begins. The conversation also seems to have completely ignored the need to drastically improve sex education and access to effective contraceptives to prevent unwanted/unplanned abortions.
In a study published in 2007, of 306 abortion seekers 74% had been using a contraception method at the time of conception. Of the women who were using contraception, traditional methods (‘safe period’ and withdrawal) were being used by 74%, thereby suggesting that information and decision making in selecting and using birth control is not as effective as it could be in Sri Lanka. Furthermore 68% of this group stated that they had no knowledge of emergency contraception methods. Women’s Rights Activist Subha Wijesiriwardena points out “The amendments themselves do not center the autonomy of the woman and her ability to make decisions about her own body, her sexuality and her health. Instead, the proposed amendments could reinforce the idea that women should first be victims of terrible circumstances before she can be afforded her full human rights – in this case, she should either be proven a victim of rape (and/or incest, statutory rape etc.), or have a fetus so tragically malformed that it may not have chance for survival. This ‘victim’ is a ‘poor, innocent’ woman, a victim of crime or a victim of tragedy”.
With official government data placing the number of illegal abortions taking place a day at over 600 and being the second or third highest cause of maternal mortality, Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology - John J Sciarra’s word in 2013 come to mind. He said “No law that has ever been passed and no law that ever will ever be passed can prevent a determined woman from trying to end an unwanted pregnancy. Society and hospitals must accept their role in keeping women safe in that process”. We need to ask ourselves if we are having the right conversation – the one that places the rights and realities of women in Sri Lanka at it’s forefront, or are we being clouded by concerns over debatable and impractical morality?