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 foetus with lethal congenital malformation, and/or when the pregnancy is a result of rape.
Announcing the decision at a press conference held at the Health Education Bureau in Colombo, a senior Health Ministry official explained that if the law is passed in Parliament, the choice of keeping the baby or aborting it – provided it falls under the above mentioned circumstances – will rest entirely on the pregnant woman. However, a recommendation will need to be made by two consultant doctors at a state hospital should she choose to go ahead with the abortion.
According to the ministry official, doctors can detect lethal congenital malformation into the 20th week of a pregnancy. Allowing such a pregnancy to carry through, he said, puts both mother and child at great risk, resulting in a child with lifelong birth defects (assuming it isn’t stillborn) and pain to the mother. Abortion has been proposed as a preventative measure.
Given how thorny a topic abortion has been and continues to be in many parts of the world, it came as no surprise that, in predominantly socially conservative Sri Lanka, reactions to the news were mixed at best. Though there were a lot of voices supportive of the move, particularly on the internet, it was limited to the usual liberal-minded circles whose social media numbers may not always reflect their real-life, grassroots level reach.
There were many elements, on both social and mainstream media, strongly critical of the Cabinet’s decision, begging the question why in 2017 a woman’s right to her own body still remains a matter of debate – a highly politicised one at that.
Leaving aside the medical complications of birthing a child with congenital malformation, the socioeconomic costs of a single parent raising a child of rape ought to be self-explanatory. The argument for giving women the choice to end such a pregnancy on their own terms then is common sense, one would imagine, but it seems that those on the opposing camp (unsurprisingly consisting mostly of men) have trouble grasping this simple concept.
Religious leaders have weighed in with their opinion that under no circumstances can they support a decriminalisation of abortion, citing centuries-old scripture as their source. While it may be tempting for some to dismiss these pronouncements as the outdated views of senile old men in robes, there is an argument to be made that as thought leaders who help shape public opinion their comments ought to be taken into consideration, separation of church, temple, mosque and State notwithstanding.
No matter how badly activists may crave it, Sri Lanka is not a truly secular state. A dialogue with the clergy, from all faiths, where they’re hopefully made to understand the modern science behind the all too volatile question of ‘when life begins’ will go a long way in convincing the masses and will hopefully put the matter to rest once and for all. Until such time, it is up to the Government and civil society activists to not be complacent and keep fighting the good fight.