Featured image (modified) courtesy Wesley Fryer
The government of Sri Lanka recently announced plans to widen the scope of the law on abortion. This initiative was subsequently put on hold because of strong opposition from religious leaders and groups in the country. As this has raised a lot of controversy, particularly on social media, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the subject, which will hopefully show that there are some serious questions we must answer as a society before making such a decision.
I think it’s only fair that I start by letting people know what my own convictions on the subject are. As a Christian, I believe very strongly that all life is sacred, regardless of the origin or the quality of that life. We are all made in the image of God, and that alone merits protection. I believe that the process of life begins at conception (and there is scientific evidence to suggest that from the moment of fertilisation, the human embryo is a distinct organism) and abortion therefore, is a form of killing. However, not all killing is illegal in our society, or even morally repugnant (think self-defence). Despite my religious convictions, I do not think that we need to resort to arguments based on religion to raise concerns about abortion.
I must also concede that as a man, I will never understand what it means to be born a woman into a patriarchal society, and to live in a culture of misogynistic control. I do not experience the daily struggle of street harassment, the domestic violence in which women are the primary victims, or the work environments in which women are constantly forced to work harder than their male counterparts in order to establish themselves. I will also never know the shame and fear of conceiving a child out of marriage in our society, or the dire prospect of raising a child in poverty, or as a single parent.
If experience is the license to speak, I concede that I am ill-suited to do so. I have no answers, only questions; but I am worried about the absence of questions in relation to abortion. I am confident that I will be misunderstood, but I feel this issue is serious enough to take that risk.
Right to be heard
An initial argument in the discourse on social media, is that people who are not affected (i.e. men) are not entitled to an opinion on abortion (unless they are in support of it). Pregnancy and abortion are indeed issues that specifically affect women, but this alone does not make abortion a women’s issue. Single people and couples that choose not to have children are entitled to have an opinion on children’s and parental rights, and on education policy; to suggest otherwise would be ridiculous. Similarly, abortion is a social issue, one which engages our very notions of what it means to be human. I think therefore, that everyone in society has a right to be heard, and that society as a whole must reflect deeply on the implications of legalised abortion on our collective morality.
The change to the law
At present, abortion is only permitted on the grounds of danger to the mother’s life (a proposition similar to self-defence). The government has proposed extending these to two new grounds – where the pregnancy is caused by rape, and where the foetus is diagnosed with conditions that would seriously reduce quality of life, or result in infant mortality. Both grounds raise some concerns.
The child conceived in rape bears no guilt or liability for the circumstances of her/his birth, nor does the child born with a serious disability. But neither does the mother, and one cannot begin to imagine the trauma experienced by a woman who finds herself in this situation. As a society that shares the general conviction that life is precious, but also one that understands the importance of choice, how do we reconcile these two conflicting value claims?
What does it say about our society, if we normalise the idea that a short life, or a life of suffering, is not worth creating at all? I sense that the illustration of suicide will resonate with most people; most would agree that suicide is not the way out of difficulties in life, and that society should create support systems to prevent this (indeed, such systems already exist in Sri Lanka). On the one hand, I recognise that groups that claim to be ‘pro-life’ are often hypocritical – hands-on until the child is born, but hands-off thereafter. On the other, I know of a local couple that offered to support a prospective single mother financially; because of this support, she opted to keep the child rather than resort to abortion. Can we not find creative ways to harness these sentiments and lobby government in order to create structures that give the woman more choice?
In relation to foetuses diagnosed with disabilities (and no doubt, which conditions qualify for abortion will be specified in the law), are we saying that persons with disabilities are better off not being born? What will this do to our attitude towards persons with disabilities who are brought into this world? What happens to the relationship between parents and their future child when they are able to have a conversation about whether they may or may not abort the foetus (perhaps they are denied)?
In this situation, the extension of abortion is being considered for only two additional grounds. It cannot therefore represent an empowerment of women, or the recognition of a woman’s control over her body. On the contrary, it is society sending the message that it is acceptable not to want to bring such children into this world – a damning indictment on us all.
Effects of legalisation
We must also consider that the law has both a coercive force and a normative impact. Legalising abortion would therefore mean that many people who might not consider abortion in status quo (because it is illegal) will be pressured to consider it simply because it has been made legal. That is the law’s coercive force. But legalising abortion also legitimises it – this is its normative impact. This means that society will be normalised into thinking that abortion is the best solution to an unwanted pregnancy.
There are at least two other choices – to raise the child, or give her/him for adoption. If we are a society that seriously respects choice, then we cannot only legitimise the one choice, because doing so will make it harder for women to make the other choices, perhaps even the harder choice. And because abortion has the attraction of being a quick fix – at least from the male’s point of view – relegating that decision to the private sphere may not empower women, and may only subject them to the further control of the men in their lives. In a nutshell, where a woman wants to keep the child, she is likely to face more pressure to have an abortion if it is legal, than she would in status quo.
If the government is considering extending the legal grounds for abortion, it must at the very least consider schemes that support the other choices also – perhaps more enabling mechanisms for adoption, or financial support for single mothers in these circumstances.
The discourse on abortion also seems to suggest that the problems end with the termination of the pregnancy. However, studies demonstrate that women often have to deal with serious psychological conditions, post-abortion. Any system that considers legalising abortion must also take this into account. If at all, it should be one that presents the woman with the range of choices before her, and gives her full information and time to make her choice. And if she chooses to go through with the abortion, she must be given the support she needs to recover from the process.
I believe strongly that human life is sacred, but I also believe that people must be given meaningful choice, and the freedom to exercise it. Any discussion that makes light of the significance of legalising abortion ignores this, and must be resisted.
For a counterpoint to this article, read “The Abortion Debate: Mismatched and misplaced?” and “Abortion, Women and Personhood” “A womb of one’s own: Life, abortion and motherhood in Sri Lanka” and Let Women Decide: Some Feminist Perspectives on the ‘Abortion Debate’