Photo courtesy of The Morning

International Women’s Month was heralded by the familiar sound of male decision making in Sri Lanka’s parliament. The agenda for International Women’s Day was the legalization of abortion in the instance of rape.

Despite the constitutional promise of universal healthcare, abortion remains illegal. As a criminal offense, abortion stands as an anomaly in the medical world. No other procedure is so heavily scrutinized, debated and politicized – vasectomies don’t get discussed in the halls of parliament. And, while attempts to legalize abortion have been pursued in 1995, 2011, 2013 and 2017, the religious conservative bloc has repeatedly impeded any further developments.

While the conversation on abortion is absolutely necessary, the call for legalization is a tricky game. Our draconian laws have not reduced abortion rates but merely skyrocketed the rate of unsafe abortions. Providing safe, regulated services to women should be a primary objective for reform.

But should we bring abortion under the purview of the state? In many ways, the legalization of abortion simply replicates a logic of monitoring, controlling and dictating the treatment of women. Our laws, convoluted in legal jargon, so often gate-keep and preclude the masses from exercising their rights. Navigating the obstacle course of legality is a feat even for those well versed in legal practice let alone the fact that these laws are designed to serve and protect bureaucrats, political elites and the powerful. It once again bestows the authority of determining a “legitimate” abortion to a legal and medical professional class overwhelmingly represented by men. For women, this leaves little room to exercise their reproductive rights.

Revisiting Sri Lanka’s abortion laws was brought to the attention of parliament by Justice Minister Ali Sabry, who stated that “If a woman is forced to have a child conceived by [gang] rape, that child will be looked at with hatred for the rest of their life”. That gang rape should be the first angle for a Sri Lankan MP to consider the validity of abortion is violently patriarchal, but unsurprising. It asserts that only in the most violent instance that a woman is dispossessed of her bodily autonomy, should a woman be afforded the right to choose whether or not to carry out her pregnancy. Mr. Sabry imposes his anxiety for a hypothetical child rather than recognizing the clear perpetration of violence that is the act of rape, and supporting a woman in her reproductive choices thereafter. Indeed, “proving” rape in a courtroom or medical room – in a country where marital rape remains legal – offers little promise for survivors seeking abortion services.

Comments such as Mr. Sabry’s allude to some bizarre logic that women are spiteful baby killers, much like a mother spider that waits to devour its own children. It follows popular rhetoric that argues that access to abortion will result in some misuse of the procedure,  that women should fall into a sexual feminine hysteria, constantly getting pregnant and aborting. Championing villainous narratives rather than promoting education, support and post care services for women seeking abortions is indicative of the twisted starting point that legalization will follow.

Within a climate that shames, ridicules and harms women, the legalization of abortion will simply relegate women’s bodies to the perverse scrutiny of male authority. It means little to grant women a vague legal autonomy without cultivating an environment that actively supports women in all reproductive choices.

Consider the recent move to decriminalize all abortion services in Colombia. In 2006, Colombia legalized abortions in the select instances of rape, health risks facing the mother and fetal health complications. But all other women – and indeed, women that could not “prove” these circumstances – continued to be criminalized for seeking abortions. A two tier system emerged; wealthy and educated women were able to utilize the new law thanks to access to legal resources while rural and low income women remained barred from such possibilities.

As of February 2022, having an abortion is no longer a criminal offense in Colombia. Years of grassroots organizing, spearheaded by women’s groups, have succeeded in reimagining Colombia’s conservative political landscape. Whereas previous legislature exacerbated disparate access to reproductive healthcare, decriminalization has ensured that all women are free to seek abortion services.

To decriminalize abortion is to recognize that there is no criminality in reproductive choice. A move to decriminalize abortion will not only protect women but promote an understanding of abortion as an essential medical service. It lays the foundations for health-based, civil-oriented policies rather than promoting a legal framework that will grant the state enormous control in administering abortion services.

The conversation on abortion is timely but women no longer want vague promises and appeasement. The call for decriminalization is now.