BY Sachini Perera
As the September 28th campaign approaches, I’ve been thinking to myself if there is anything more left to say about the abortion law reform process in Sri Lanka and the stalemate it is currently at. A lot that has been said already and I have added my own voice to this a couple of times; including the analysis that even the proposed reforms are a far cry from the right to bodily autonomy that women and girls, in all our diversity, are entitled to.
So I’ll keep this succinct because this is not a discussion that requires new angles or hot takes.
Decriminalizing abortion comes down to treating women as people capable of making decisions about our bodies because we know that social, cultural and legal norms already assume and deem cisgender heterosexual men to have such capacity. It is about acknowledging women as people with agency and not patronizing us and putting our lives in danger by criminalizing decisions related to our bodies or relegating decision making about our bodies to doctors, judges, religious leaders, policy makers and men. It is about the legal and moral obligation of the state to provide women in all our diversity with a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health services that does not discriminate on the basis of age, marital status, class, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, income and other factors that affect access to our basic right to health.
Rape, incest, a foetus with lethal congenital malformation, or danger to a pregnant woman’s life are all possible reasons to abort a foetus. But a woman should not need to “make a case” for why she needs an abortion. In Sri Lanka and all over the world, the reason women want the right and the choice to have an abortion is because a pregnancy is unwanted. Reasons? They could be any of those mentioned above but most often it’s because; she doesn’t want more children, she doesn’t want any children, she’s not ready for another child, she’s not ready for her first child, she’s not in a stable relationship, a pregnancy would interfere with her education or employment, etc. In other words, a host of crosscutting economic, social, cultural, physical and emotional factors.
For example, it is estimated that over 700 abortions happen in Sri Lanka each day (but the actual figures are estimated to be much higher) and septic abortion is the third highest cause of maternal mortality in the country. The majority of women who undergo abortions are married (a staggering 94% by some estimates) and the main reasons for abortion are economic instability and not wanting more children. Since abortion is not legal in Sri Lanka for these reasons, women resort to illegal and often unsafe abortion. Unsafe abortion is a contributing factor to maternal deaths in Sri Lanka because while women from higher income households often have access and money to terminate their pregnancies in safe (but illegal) ways, women from middle and lower income households end up going to “backdoor abortionists”, often resulting in death or lifelong disabilities. Decriminalizing abortion would mean the women who want to abort unwanted pregnancies for whatever reason(s) can access them legally, safely and in an affordable and non-stigmatized way.
Women’s right to abortion is stuck in the middle of the Sri Lankan state’s double standard in its treatment of motherhood and womanhood. If there is resistance towards relaxing laws to allow abortion in at least limited circumstances, then completely decriminalizing abortion to provide women with choices to exercise bodily autonomy seems like a distant dream. The reality that is being willfully ignored by the state, especially when the President, who has been instrumental in creating the current stalemate in abortion law reform, gives religious leaders a say in the proposed reforms, is that abortions happen every day regardless of criminalization. Criminalization just means women have to resort to extreme and in many cases unsafe measures to have a chance to make decisions about our bodies.
Let’s be clear. It’s not just the human rights framework which dictates that restricting access to safe and legal abortion services is a violation of our human right to freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Women’s stories of having to resort to clandestine abortions and stories of being forced to go through unwanted pregnancies illustrate how cruel, inhuman and degrading it is to not have control over our bodies. The number of women who die or suffer permanent health issues due to complications from unsafe abortions illustrate how cruel, inhuman and degrading it is to not have control over our bodies.
The bottom-line is, a woman should not have to list reasons why she wants an abortion and most definitely doesn’t need approval or “sign off” from anyone, least of all anyone she doesn’t want involved in the decision. Decriminalizing abortion doesn’t mean anyone is then compelled to have an abortion or even be pro-abortion, should it be against their religious beliefs, morals, etc. and this view is supported by members of the Catholic community in Sri Lanka who support reforming abortion law. Decriminalizing abortion means anyone has an unconditional CHOICE to have an abortion if they want one. We are fighting for the right to have that choice and each woman and girl who dies or suffers due to a lack of that choice is one too many.
 Abortion is criminalized in Sri Lanka with one exception; to save the life of the woman. Several attempts have been made in the past to, if not decriminalize abortion, then to at least relax the law to include more exceptions. However, these attempts have been thwarted due to a lack of political will and the influence of religious leaders, especially the Catholic Church.