BY L. Jovian
This week tensions have once again stirred around the government’s proposed relaxation of abortion laws. Abortion is of course a controversial and emotive subject. In the west, particularly the US, the abortion debate is painted in monochromatic terms by both the ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ camps; each portraying their own position as morally incontestable whilst placing devils horns on the other. This climate of polarisation, has served only to shrink the space for rational debate.
In Sri Lanka the trenches are already being dug with religious leaders and rights activists snarling at one another like rabid strays. An issue such as this, an issue of life and death, will always evoke strong emotions. However, Sri Lanka must be careful not to follow the lead of the US but instead must make room for open, rational discussion on both the issue of abortion and its causes.
Abortion rates in Sri Lanka are staggeringly high in spite of the prohibitory laws in place. In 2011 the Public Health Bureau claimed that an estimated 800 abortions take place every day. Recent data has suggested that there are around 290,000 abortions per year; a huge figure given that Sri Lanka’s annual birth rate stands at 380,000. The majority of abortions are carried out by unskilled practitioners, backstreet butchers, in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. The repercussions of this can be devastating. Internal bleeding and fatal infection are commonplace; abortion is currently the leading cause of maternal death in the country.
The current abortion laws are redundant; serving neither to protect the rights of women nor to prevent abortion. For me therefore, the governments proposed legislative changes would be a tentative but positive step forward. However, in order to provide the necessary protection to the vulnerable women in question, the law will ultimately require further relaxation. This perspective is not driven by any staunch ‘pro-choice’ stance but rather by a pragmatic approach to the ground realities.
Although I support liberalisation, I do not see legality as the central issue. The key question for me is why, despite it being illegal and highly dangerous, is the abortion rate so high?
One factor that demands attention is the taboo attached to pregnancy outside of wedlock. I would argue that the widespread support of socially conservative, deeply sexist views, on premarital sex has directly contributed to the escalation in abortion rates. Whilst, women continue to face stigmatisation for premarital pregnancy, it should come as no surprise that many women opt for termination.
However, whilst the debate over sexual behaviour is important, in truth this remains a peripheral issue. Despite an increase in pre-marital sex the vast majority of abortions are still performed on married women. In reality, the primary reasons for abortion in Sri Lanka remain the seemingly age-old mix of poverty and inadequate sex education. Recent studies have shown that unplanned pregnancies are usually caused by a reliance on traditional contraceptive methods; itself the result of ignorance (particularly the refusal of male partners to use condoms or other ‘modern’ methods). The actual decision to abort meanwhile is often based on economic grounds. In stark terms, poor women are often faced with the choice between abortion or risking the lives or welfare of their families.
Whilst I support the liberalisation of abortion law I see the real challenge ahead not to be legal but socio-economic; the real issue not to be abortion itself but rather the social taboos and ignorance surrounding sex. I am aware that my opinions will not be shared by all, nor should they be. All I ask is that this perspective be considered on its merits. All I hope is that Sri Lanka can retain rationality where the west has lost its head.