Time again to review abortion laws
It was nearly 40 years ago that Singapore liberalised its abortion laws. These recently made the news again when several Members of Parliament, during the Committee of Supply debate last month, called for adoption instead of abortion to be considered by those who were pregnant but did not want to keep their children.
Our current abortion laws are contained in the Termination of Pregnancy Act, which is a consolidation of statutes on abortion in the 1985 Revised Edition of the Singapore Statutes. It is one of the most liberal in the world, allowing abortion without restriction as to reason for up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Except for several amendments, this Act is substantially the same as the 1974 Abortion Act, which radically liberalised abortion as compared with the 1969 Abortion Act. The 1969 Act in turn was regarded as controversial in its time and was extensively debated in Parliament — prior to that, an abortion by a registered medical practitioner was permitted only on purely medical grounds to save the life of the woman.
Under the 1969 Act, other than when abortion was immediately necessary to save the life or to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman, abortions might be performed by a registered medical practitioner acting under authorisation by the Termination of Pregnancy Authorisation Board.
The board was allowed to authorise abortion if one of four grounds existed: The life of the pregnant woman or injury to her physical or mental health was at stake; certain circumstances (such as financial difficulties) of the pregnant woman were present; there were substantial risks that the child would be born with physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped; and when the pregnancy had been the result of rape or incest or intercourse with an insane or feeble-minded person.
The 1974 Act removed the need for authorisation by the board, the grounds of abortion, and the requirement of parental consent for young pregnant women.
STILL PROPERLY JUSTIFIED?
Legislation should be properly justified in a democracy. If the reasons to back a law are no longer valid, or the social context has changed, a review of the law is in order to see if new reasons support the law as it stands, or if the law should be amended. I argue that our abortion laws should be thoroughly reviewed in Parliament.
The reasons for liberalisation decades ago had included the population explosion, which is irrelevant today. Then there was the eugenic argument, cited in 1969, to rebut groups that had argued for the sanctity of the unborn: They were told to witness for themselves the care of “mental defectives” at Woodbridge Hospital. The then-Minister of Health said “it (was) an acknowledged social evil to countenance the breeding of defectives in society”.