Decriminalise abortion in Sri Lanka: Statement by human rights defenders and women’s groups

Wednesday, 13 September 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As a collective of organisations and individuals who work on women’s human rights in Sri Lanka, we are keen to add our voices to the prevailing debate in public fora around legislation governing abortion. 

Recent announcements of the passage of a bill which would legalise abortion under two circumstances – ‘when the mother carries a foetus with Lethal Congenital Malformation and when a woman becomes a rape victim’1 were welcome by many, though we would like to note that such provisions are only a small and yet inadequate measure to ensure women are able to fully enjoy their human rights. 

Women’s rights and human rights defenders, lawyers and medical professionals have been campaigning for the complete decriminalisation of abortion as a critical women’s rights issue in Sri Lanka for decades.

We are also deeply concerned over the opposition to passage of the proposed bill.

Currently, abortion is criminalised in Sri Lanka completely, unless it can be proven that it is necessary to save the life of the woman2. This means women cannot access legal and safe abortions.

Around 700 abortions are performed daily in Sri Lanka3, which also accounts for the second leading cause of maternal deaths in 2006, 2008 and 20104. Criminalisation of abortion has only driven the practice underground, with women resorting to illegal and often unsafe abortions5. 

The Country Profile on Universal Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health: Sri Lanka (2015)6 states, ‘Maternal death due to septic abortion is the third highest cause for maternal death, at 13% (FHB, 2012).’

It also states, ‘However, considering, its legal status does not prevent women from seeking abortions, but does prevent women from seeking immediate medical assistance when complications occur... patients are brought in when the conditions are severe and are also at risk of being charged for procuring illegal abortions.’

The CEDAW Committee also expressed concern that in Sri Lanka, abortion is still a punishable offence under the law, unless the purpose is to save the life of the mother, and expressed regrets that about 10% of maternal mortality is reported as the direct result of clandestine abortion. In its Concluding Observations on the Eighth Periodic Report, the Committee reiterated its recommendation to the State to decriminalise abortion7.

The continued criminalisation of abortion is a crisis for women’s rights, women’s health and wellbeing in Sri Lanka; it is as a serious obstacle to our ability to make empowered and autonomous decisions as equal citizens. To choose the termination of an unwanted pregnancy, under any circumstances, is a fundamental human right.

We are concerned about the ‘religious’ and moralistic framework given to this debate by some opponents of decriminalisation8. We assert that this is not a moral or religious matter, it is a matter of women’s human rights, dignity and choice. A response to this debate must be a response to women primarily, regardless of class, caste and circumstance.

The position of campaigning for the legalisation of abortion is not a moral position – it is simply a position which centres the decision-making power of women, and sees the need to reform outdated, colonial legislation, so that women’s rights and autonomy can be enjoyed in full.

While we will continue to campaign and work towards decriminalisation of abortion unconditionally, we also support the cabinet’s decision to ease the existing laws criminalising abortion and we ask the state not to be swayed in this decision.

1. We urge the state to promote, protect and fulfil all the rights of all women, and to fulfil its responsibility towards its citizens. Significant decisions such as this, with regards to citizens’ rights should not be influenced by religious or other institutions, in a secular and democratic state such as ours.

2. We urge the state strongly, to allow the proposed amendments to existing abortion legislation, so that abortion may be made legal under two conditions; and to continue to work with public health officials, women’s rights advocates, medical professions, and psychological-support experts to decriminalise abortion without limitation, and provide women the right and access to safe and legal abortion services.

3. We strongly urge our Government to acknowledge every woman’s right to autonomously make decisions with regards to her own body, health and wellbeing – physiological and emotional – unconditionally.



2 Sri Lanka Penal Code - Sections 303 - 307

3 Abeykoon A.T.P.L, Estimates of abortion rates in Sri Lanka using Bongaarets Model of Proximate Determinants of Fertility: 4-5.

4 Family Health Bureau. National Maternal Mortality Reviews – 2011







Anusha Alagarajah

Cayathri D

Gameela Samarasinghe

Dr Harini Amarasuriya, Open University of Sri Lanka

Hasanah Cegu Issadeen

Hemalatha M.

Iromi Perera, Researcher

Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, Goodwill Ambassador for Women’s Rights, Ministry of Women’s Affairs

Jensila Majeed

Kamani Jinadasa

Kumudini Samuel, Women and Media Collective

Mahaluxmy Kurushanthan

Mythili B

Niventhini S.

Priya Mohan

Prof. Kumari Jayewardena

Rajani Rajeswary

Riyadh R.

Sachini Perera, Resurj

Dr Sepali Kottegoda

Sharmini V.

Sherine Xavier, The Social Architects.

Shermal Wijewardene

Shreen Saroor

Subha Wijesiriwardene, Women and Media Collective

Sumika Perera, Women’s Resource Centre

Tehani Ariyaratne

Tharshan S.

Vagisha Gunasekara, American institute for Lankan Studies. 

Zainab Ibrahim, Researcher


Dabindu Collective

Hashtag Generation

Mannar Women’s Development Federation

Suriya Women’s Development Centre


Women and Media Collective

Women in Need

Women’s Action Network


Youth Advocacy Network, Sri Lanka