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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.

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”.

Another justification for legalising abortion in the past was the harm that might result from backstreet abortions, to which pregnant women would resort if no legal means of abortion were available.

Today, this fear is unfounded. In our social context today, which is vastly different, stricter abortion laws are more likely to lead people to be circumspect about unprotected sex, than to drive them to backstreet abortionists.

In the ’70s when liberal abortion laws were passed, people had to be educated about family planning and had no easy access to common contraceptive methods used today. Where did they have to go to obtain contraception? Did they have anonymity of access?

Today, some methods of contraception are widely available, with even a pharmacy in a university campus making the news recently for selling condoms. Anybody walking up to the cash registers of convenience stores in petrol kiosks and supermarkets can purchase them without hassle.

Moreover, whereas in the past, some might not have had easy access to information about methods of contraception, such information is now readily available on the Internet.

In fact, we should ask whether the four decades of liberal abortion laws have played a part in enabling people to organise their sexual relationships and make choices about sex without protection, knowing that they would have easy legal access to abortion should they get pregnant. It does not seem likely that in the majority of instances of abortion, contraception was used and failed.

And given our effective control of drugs and other social ills, to claim that we fear we cannot successfully prevent harmful backstreet abortions is defeatist and ignores our track record in legal regulation.

CHOICES AND ATTITUDES

With stricter laws that render it harder or impermissible to undergo abortions, some may have to learn the hard way but, it is probable that many more would organise their sexual relationships differently, choosing contraception.

Today, some prefer to dissociate the act of abortion from the squeamish images and moral overtones the word conjures in referring to the termination of a pregnancy. But contrary to the anticipation of the then-Minister for Health in 1969, views opposing abortion have not ended up “in the dustbins of history”. Abortion remains controversial today.

For example, only two weeks ago, CNN reported that in America, North Dakota legislators “approved two anti-abortion bills, including one that would ban most abortions after six weeks — when a fetal heartbeat can be first detected”.

In Singapore as we confront the high ratio of the number of abortions to the number of live births, we must admit that it says something about a cavalier attitude towards the worth of the unborn — an attitude that continues to be facilitated by current laws.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon expressed in his speech on euthanasia, delivered at the Singapore Medical Association Annual Lecture, that “(l)aw is the expression of society’s choices about the policy choices we will live by”.

Moving forward, is this what we are comfortable with as a nation?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Tan Seow Hon is an Associate Professor at the School of Law at Singapore Management University.

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