|A word of caution about abortion
Dr. M. R. T. Wickramaratne
Since then, the question of liberalization of the abortion laws in Sri Lanka has been discussed at various fora over the years. The Island of 2 October 1995 carried a report on Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvams views on the proposed amendments to the Penal Code and on 19 October, the same paper published a response by Dr. Vinodh Ramachandra, who stated that the section on abortion in Dr. Tiruchelvams article cannot go unchallenged. He presented a clearly argued case against abortion, based on global facts and figures.
Now there is again talk of reviving the proposed 1995 Penal Code amendment to liberalize abortion. I find, from the front-page news item of The Island of 7 February 2002, that the age-old excuses are being trotted out. "The Womans Affairs Minister, plans to explore the possibility of legalizing abortions on a selective basis". I would like to offer a word of caution. Re-drafting rules in order to accommodate exceptional cases can open the floodgates and be the first steps down the slippery slope. In a country where traditional value systems are being confronted with the dilemmas of war and violence and are giving way to a callous disregard for human life, it would indeed be a dangerous step.
Lessons from experience of other countries
Countries like the UK and the USA, which today have extremely high abortion rates and where rape and allied crimes persist, all began their Abortion Law Reforms by moving toward a liberalized abortion law for special circumstances. In 1938, Mr. Aleck Bourne, a London gynaecologist, publicly performed an abortion on a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by two soldiers. At his trial, the judge, Judge MacNaughten, liberally interpreted the words of the exception clause of the 1929 Infant Life Preservation Act and Mr. Bourne was acquitted. The Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) was formed in 1939 and devoted itself to the passage of a liberal abortion law and was behind the seven abortion bills introduced into Parliament without success before David Steel brought in his Bill in 1967. The proponents of the Bill went to great lengths to assure everyone that it was not abortion on demand that was being legalized. They spoke instead of the hard cases, the women with six children, the raped schoolgirl, the deaths from back-street abortions and the astronomical number of illegal abortions. It is of interest that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) warned of the implications and possible outcome of what was proposed. It is reported that "their advice was in certain important respects disregarded but subsequent events have shown how fully justified were their forebodings". It is also of interest that Mr. Aleck Bourne subsequently joined the ranks of the anti-abortionists.
On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision, entitled Roe v Wade. Fletcher reports that: "This decision knocked down restrictive abortion statutes in 46 of the 50 states of the Union". Dr. Vinodh Ramachandran, writing in the Island of 19 October 1995, gave some interesting follow-up on this story. He stated that Norma McCorvey, known as Jane Roe later admitted that she had lied to her lawyer about being raped and that in 1995 she gave up her job as Marketing Director for an abortion clinic in Dallas, Texas, and publicly renounced her role in the pro-abortion movement. He went on to say that in an ABC Television news interview, she spoke of the way she had been haunted all these years by the abortion landslide that followed the Supreme Court decision. More recently, Dr. Terence Perera, in The Island of 4 March 2002, states that 25 years on, she has switched sides and is now a vocal anti-abortionist. She has started a strategy to fight abortion through a network of mobile counselling clinics for pregnant women via a ministry called Roe-No-More
One of the reasons offered for the proposed introduction of the amendments to the Penal Code to liberalize abortion is that two of the SAARC countries, namely India and Bangladesh, have already legalized abortion. Instead of confining ourselves to the region, I feel we should look at the global situation and try to learn from the experiences of other countries, which have trod the way before us, rather than follow blindly in their footsteps. Some of the first countries to legalize abortion, for example, some in Eastern Europe subsequently put severe restrictions on their liberal abortion laws. The UK was attempting to amend the Abortion Act of 1967 just a couple of years later. President Bush is now trying to reverse Bill Clintons abortion policies in the United Nations. This change of attitude is because the liberalization/legalization of abortion has not yielded the expected result. It is now an accepted fact that legalization of abortion has greatly increased the total number of induced abortions. The actual number of legal abortions performed is very likely greater than that stated in official returns. The RCOG believes that: "Considerable numbers of abortions in the private sector have not been notified to the Department". Those who promote the liberalization/legalization of abortion promise, at the very least, a reduction in the number of illegal abortions, a reduction in the number of maternal deaths from abortion and a reduction in the illegitimacy rate. However, no such decreases are apparent from the statistics available from other countries.
Need for wider discussion
In my view, there is no need to rig up a new philosophy of life, much less a new ethic to be forced by a small segment of the population (so-called experts) on their fellow men.
According to the newspaper report of 7 February, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Womens Affairs has stated that: "They intend to hold talks with interested parties within the next few weeks with a view to ironing out their differences over the issue." The official has also given the assurance: "We will not rush". How are these interested parties to be identified or informed of this opportunity to discuss the issues? I would suggest that the Ministry publish an eye-catching notice calling for public comment and views, like for instance, the advertisement regarding the Draft National Telecommunication Policy in The Island of 20 March 2002. Sufficient notice must be given and time allowed for interested parties to forward their views after which large-scale discussions could be held, if necessary, if a change is still to be considered. Abortion is a matter of life and death and merits such importance to be accorded to it before major changes to the laws are considered.
Abortion is the taking of life, therefore it is killing, and killing is wrong. Nothing has changed in this regard. It is interesting that great persons like Albert Schweitzer and Mother Theresa, both of whom have dedicated their lives to the service of the poor, the hungry and the downtrodden, have positively rejected abortion. This suggests that the acceptance of abortion is a rejection of tenderness for all life.
As Fr. Vimal Tirimanna asks in The Island of 4 March 2002, how can the Opposition, which fiercely opposed the move to liberalize abortion not so long go, support it now that they form the ruling party? The addition, even crossing over, of a few members cannot make such a significant difference in such an important moral issue. The innocent, defenceless and unborn child must not be used as a political football.
Possible effects on the Health Services
It is also important to consider the effect liberalized abortion may have on our Health Services. Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, in his comments on the Amendments to the Penal Code in 1995, made reference to the discriminatory impact of the abortion laws on different social classes. However, liberalization of the law alone is unlikely to keep the poor and unmarried away from illegal abortion clinics. Whatever the laws, the rich will always have greater access to the good things of life - sins and crimes among them than those in the lower income groups. There is a great amount of money to be made from performing abortion in the private sector, and the temptation for the doctor to recommend abortion on the flimsiest grounds will be great if, as suggested by Dr. Tiruchelvam, he is free to determine, without regulation by the State, that in his medical judgement, the pregnancy should be terminated. Dr. Tiruchelvam goes on to lament the fact that women who have developed complications as a result of unsafe abortions occupy at least 20% of the hospital beds in gynaecology wards. Our national hospitals are already overcrowded and undertaking abortions at these hospitals would mean that patients seeking abortions would take up even more beds. This would mean that those with genuine gynaecological complaints would have to wait longer for the treatment they need. Here again, we can learn from the British experience. The RCOG, in a report on unplanned pregnancies stated as follows: "There is abundant evidence that the way in which the Act is working in practice is putting great strain upon both out-patients and inpatients services in the Gynaecological Departments of National Health Service Hospitals. These strains not only involve ethical and moral conflicts amongst doctors nurses and paramedical staff but also affect the physical resources of departments and the service that can be made available to patients requesting consultation and treatment for the whole range of gynaecological disorders" It is well to bear in mind the fact that the physicians traditional duty is to combat disease and save life, not destroy it. Even when Nature condemns, the doctors task is to save the victim or at !east to alleviate the pain, not to execute the sentence.
I cannot agree that rape and incest call for a change of law or a redrafting of our attitudes toward life. The increasing incidence of a crime does not require amendments to the law. For instance, if thefts or motor accidents caused by reckless or drunken driving are on the increase, amendments to the law are not considered. Rather, the culprits are punished and given some training to reform themselves while the victims and others in danger of being attacked or injured are shown how they might take precautions to safeguard themselves. Why should it be different in the case of rape or incest? I believe there is provision for the law to respond in a humane manner and for judgements to be made with compassion and understanding in truly exceptional circumstances.
In conclusion, 1 would state that what we need is to rediscover the basic traditional values such as love, compassion and the sanctity of life, which are often lost sight of in a debate such as this, in the scramble to push a Bill through. The four major world religions represented in Sri Lanka, namely Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, all cherish these values and they must be instilled into the next generation so that the country has a caring population with a respect for human life and a sense of care and concern for one another. In this context I would like to make reference to a mother who refused treatment for breast cancer to save her unborn child. Sonya Short, 29, was told she had cancer 12 weeks into her pregnancy. She had a mastectomy but knew chemotherapy and radiation would kill the foetus, so refused them until after the birth of her baby. Her husband stood by her, offering her the support she required and admiring her courage. They are now the proud parents of a bouncing baby boy! Here was a heroic woman, willing to make sacrifices for her child. Surely, this is what motherhood is all about.
The social ills must be studied and a solution found to the prevailing problems but abortion itself is a problem and can never be a solution. I would recommend that instead of expending time, effort and resources in attempting anything so negative as liberalizing the abortion laws, the Ministry for Womens Affairs undertakes more positive action such as establishing a unit to help women with problem pregnancies. They could offer advice about finance, housing, social security and medical problems. They could also offer unmarried mothers accommodation during pregnancy. Victims of rape and incest need kindness, protection and reassurance.
The building up of the personal relationships required to provide this is much harder and much less lucrative than performing abortion but would be of much greater benefit. All this will naturally require additional funds but so will liberalized abortion if it is to be made available cost free to the poor and downtrodden. They could call for volunteers to assist in setting up the proposed unit to help women cope with problem pregnancies, as an alternative to abortion. I, for one, would be glad to offer my services. This approach to the abortion problem is the only way - endeavouring to preserve the life of the child whilst meeting the needs of the mother.
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