I am not a theologian nor a reproductive health expert. I am merely a lay woman, a member of the Catholic church in Sri Lanka, responding to recent articles published by members of my own religious community regarding the bill to expand safe abortion provisions. This article is written for the sake of balanced perspective and healthy, constructive debate within our community. We must take a step back and look at exactly whose lives we are protecting with our attitudes towards this bill.
Currently, it is legal in Sri Lanka to terminate a pregnancy if a mother’s life is at risk. The proposed bill extends safe abortion in two very narrow, specific cases: (1) where the foetus has a lethal congenital malformation and (2) where the mother is a victim of rape. These are extremely limited cases. We need to focus our attention on these cases instead of falling prey to slippery slope arguments that make broad-sweeping claims about women’s reproductive health.
We are all aware that the Catholic church’s official position on abortion is against it. Recently, due to the on-going debate on the proposed bill, representatives of the Catholic church have come forward with articles on the abortion issue. However, the members and leaders of the church who are writing about it in public are not responding to the issue at hand, that is, the extension of abortion provisions in two limited cases. Instead, they have turned this debate into empty rhetoric by lashing out at the reproductive rights of women whole-scale. In doing so, they exemplify a knee-jerk reaction that – embarrassingly for many members of the Catholic faith – depict the Catholic church as reactionary and misogynist. There is no constructive debate on this issue. Worse still, even though Catholics represent barely 6% of Sri Lanka’s total population, the church has managed to put a massive spanner in the progress of a bill that will affect all 22 million of us.
In an article widely circulated amongst the Catholic community, the Catholic Doctors’ Guild claims that ‘the trauma of sexual assault is likely to inhibit ovulation’. This is a false and dangerous myth. The Guild quotes a rate of 0.1% but it provides no citation of medical studies or references to support this claim. On the other hand, a widely-quoted publication in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1996 showed that 32,101 pregnancies occurred annually through rape. This study shows that pregnancy can vary up to 30% depending on proximity to date of ovulation, averaging at 5% overall. This higher statistic is supported by Rev. Fr. Icatlo in an article published in The Messenger on the 10th September 2017 where he cites a 1982 study carried out on over 400 women. In this study, the rape-related pregnancy rate stands at just over 6% overall. The Catholic community deserves information, facts, and truth from the Guild rather than uncited statistics that perpetuate false myths.
In another article entitled ‘How should we consider abortion?’ published September 7th 2017 in The Island, Fr. Augustine Fernando of Badulla Diocese completely evades talking about the narrow propositions of the bill (i.e. safe pregnancy termination for rape victims and of malformed foetuses) and instead fills 2000 words of an article with vitriol against the whole idea that a woman should be able to choose what she does with her body. Well, rape victims certainly did not have the luxury of choosing what happened to their bodies at the hands of their perpetrators. Fr. Fernando also does not bother responding to the issue of rape and abnormal foetuses and instead continues to talk about ‘immoral deviant sexual behaviour’ and ‘wanton sexual escapades’ and how abortion is prevalent now because ‘pregnancy has become “an inconvenience” to particular women’. Needless to say, the wantonness, immorality and inconvenience he speaks of are not related at all to the wanton, immoral, inconvenient, heinous act of rape. He merely connects abortion to promiscuity, which is certainly not the focus of the bill at hand.
Let us understand something fundamental: whether or not Sri Lanka legalizes abortion, abortions will happen. The only difference legalization makes is whether women have access to SAFE abortion or not. That is, legalization will determine whether women can go to a hospital and seek a medical intervention overseen by medical professionals that will ensure her safe recovery. If it remains illegal, women will continue seeking unsafe abortions which often leave them sterile, cause irreversible medical complications, and in the worst cases, can lead to death through excessive bleeding.
The Church’s ideology against abortion is based primarily on the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Even through my rudimentary understanding of Catholic dogma, I find that our stance against this current bill is in contradiction with itself. In Sri Lanka, the Police Department showed that in 2015, 80% of all rape victims were girls under the age of 16. About 700 illegal abortions are performed every day and in 2006, 2008, and 2010, it was the second leading cause of maternal death, according to research by the Family Health Bureau (FHB). It is not abortion itself that causes these deaths but rather the unsafe conditions of operation and the lack of critical aftercare. The FHB continues to note that ‘considering the…data, its legal status does not prevent women from seeking abortions but does prevent women from seeking immediate medical assistance when complications occur’. Even in 2015, the FHB finds that ‘maternal death due to septic abortion is the third highest cause for maternal death, at 13%.’ A common argument in these anti-abortion articles is that abortion is ‘killing an innocent child’ for something he/she did not do. This is true but in a different sense: unsafe abortions are indeed killing innocent girls and women for something they did not choose to have done to their bodies. If Catholics are truly committed to protecting life then we need to address the actual, current violence and death that hundreds of girls and women are facing. In reality, the current proposed bill will actually save, not end, hundreds of lives.
The articles I have read written by Catholics on the current abortion issue are written by men. It is true that our church has the problem of letting celibate men have total control of sexual and reproductive rights of its community. However, that is our problem to deal with. It is unwarranted that Catholic men promote a view – which is dangerously misleading and outright false at times – that will affect millions of citizens that they will never see or have to support. As a professional, I have worked with children’s homes, pregnant victims of sexual abuse, and families with severely disabled offspring. Some of these people were indeed supported by church outfits, largely by nuns and sisters. However, never in all the years that I worked with those communities did I see or hear of any of these male writers who are now suddenly so impassioned about the sacredness of family. I appeal to them and to all those who argue against abortion to substantiate your commitment to ‘life’ by extending assistance to the existent homes that take care of products of unwanted pregnancies. Do this instead of trying to turn the tide against a progressive bill that will actually save, not end, hundreds of lives.