Life or Choice?
The Women's Rights Movement, reinforced by the theory of equality of the sexes, says I have innate worth, inalienable rights and great capacity to contribute to society. As a result of its lifelong fight for equality, the movement has presented me with the choice of abortion – the double edged sword that liberates me from my role as an unwilling mother, yet undermines the sanctity of motherhood.
Some say life begins at conception. Some refuse to inflict a term of lifelong suffering upon an innocent, unwanted child. Is the foetus a human, or a simple mass of tissue? Is abortion a war on the unborn? Do I have a right to take away a life that I do not own? I'm not one person, but many. These were the questions I posed to the youth of urban Colombo…
"According to my religious beliefs, I believe a foetus is a person, and therefore, abortion, by its definition, is taking a life. I do not condemn people who resort to abortion out of desperation, but in answer to a yes or no question, yes, abortion is wrong," said Ruchira (23). "I appreciate it is a very difficult decision for the couple or people involved. If it was my choice, I would very much push to have the baby, regardless of the situation."
Pro-lifers are unified by the theory that all humans, including the unborn, have an inherent right to live. They believe that from the moment of conception, the foetus is a human life and that abortion is a war upon the unborn.
To be pro-choice is to believe that the right to an abortion is elemental in defending women's right to sovereignty. Many feminists believe that in the absence to choose, women are unjustly forced into motherhood, which sentences them to substandard citizenship, with lesser resources to education and employment.
In a broader perspective, pro-choice activists pose their argument within a frame of "individual liberty," "reproductive freedom," and "reproductive rights." While some feminists consider themselves opposed to some, or all abortions on a moral basis, they maintain that abortion ensures the safety of women.
In Western countries, it was widely declared that unplanned pregnancies bring about a substantial figure of unwanted children, some of whom were exposed to child abuse. Thus, pro-choice activists presented the legalization of abortion as a magic potion for this issue.
Under the penal code of 1883, abortion is a punishable criminal offence in Sri Lanka, except when performed to save a woman's life. In urban areas, the lack of legal endorsement allows the operation of unlawful abortion clinics, the existence of which is overlooked by the state authorities. Of the many surgeries performed under the table, some are done by qualified surgeons and the others, by inexpert individuals. In rural areas, crude and primitive procedures are used to execute abortions.
"Abortion itself maybe a moral issue according to our beliefs, but its legalization is not," says Deane (21), adding, "I think regardless of your opinion about this issue, you can still support its' legalization because you should not impose your opinions on the rest of the society."
Pro-choice feminists view availability of safe and legal abortions as an integral element in a woman's right to controlling her body. In the absence of legal abortion, women must succumb to one of two undesirable options - to undergo an unsafe, illegal procedure, which would endanger their lives or to persevere with their pregnancy in situations that are detrimental to both the woman and the unborn baby.
The unceasing debate claims that denial of abortion to women acts to diminish women within society. Pro-life activists' argument that the foetus is a person is countered by the feminists' view that a foetus, which is insentient and undeveloped, should not have rights that are equal to or superior to that of a woman. The pro-choice activists then stress that compulsory pregnancy laws violate our democratic society's ideals of individual rights and freedoms.
"I think women should be given the option to abort, even in circumstances where the pregnancy is unplanned and the child is unwanted. Safety of women should be taken into primary consideration and victims of rape and incest should be given special recognition. If abortion is made legal in this country, unsafe procedures will discontinue, thereby ensuring proper health-care for women," Nirasha (24) said.
In reverse, a different group of feminists claims that abortion, instead of ensuring the liberation of women, serves to unshackle men who wish to engage in irresponsible, sexual behaviour. According to them, abortion acts to support the notion that men can be excused from the responsibilities of parenting, which are primarily taken care of by a woman. These activists underline that when the deed is done and an unwanted child threatens their freedom, the men force women to undergo this invasive procedure and the emotional trauma to ensure their quick getaway.
"Women must stop yielding to the demands of a society created by men for men, and urge men to take initiative in relationships. Men must uphold equal responsibility in nurturing the children that they took equal part and pleasure in creating," said Nadisha (22).
Adding to that, Shivanthi (25) said, "I believe abortion is wrong under careless circumstances and I don't think it's fair that irresponsibility of young adults is remedied by abortion. In the end, it's a life, which has no say in the matter. Although, I do support abortion if the mother was a victim of rape or other undesirable circumstances."
In Sri Lanka, where cultural and religious values have thus far impeded the legalisation of abortion, young girls who become pregnant are subject to societal degradation. A primary reason that drive these youngsters to resort to abortion is the lack of support they receive from their own parents to continue their pregnancy.
Despite the boasting a high standard of women's rights, the mainstream community of Sri Lanka offers little support to young single mothers. For them, having a illegitimate baby is synonymous with the being a social outcast and the certain end to their education and career plans.
Concerned by the core implications of single motherhood; these girls resort to abortion.
Many women are forced to abort due to pressure by their men folk and their parents. Poverty is another leading cause, which for single mothers has many faces; the poverty of the adolescent, the student, the unemployed, the unmarried, or a combination of these. In Sri Lanka, many single mothers who have chosen to nurture their children live below the poverty line.
"Getting pregnant before marriage in this country is somewhat akin to serving a life sentence," said Jehan (20), adding, "our culture is not built to support single parenthood and the dishonour and pressure that a girl would have to endure is far worse a crime than abortion itself."
While Sri Lanka does not offer legal abortion to cases where conception occurred after rape or during an incestuous relationship, women who do not want to bear a child who was conceived in violence resort to back alley abortions.
Among other reasons that impel women to abort are the exposure of a foetus to high levels of toxic chemicals and medications, detection of genetic defects such as Down's syndrome, impregnation at a very young age when pregnancy can be dangerous and multiple pregnancy where doctors encourage selective reduction process.
"The Sri Lankan community should cease to view sex as a taboo subject and be more open minded about the circumstances concerned," Obstetrician and Gynaecologist Dr. Lakshman Senanayake said, adding, "parents should comprehensively discuss the repercussions of sex with their children."
He said that the government and the policymakers must stop denying the occurrence of premarital sex in the country and educate the young about contraception and repercussions of abortion in order to reduce the incidence of abortion."Teenagers who become pregnant are not physically mature enough to endure rigours of labour and breast-feeding. In addition, they are certainly not geared to deal with motherhood and may be subject to further psychological and social concerns after having a baby," he said.
He said that the society is responsible for the environment a child is exposed to and thus, responsible for taking care of impregnated girls. He underlined that in the presence of proper education about sex and contraception, the incidence of back alley abortion will decrease, thereby protecting the youth of the country.
The brave few who firmly believe that abortion is morally wrong, continue their pregnancy to the end. Despite the difficulty in separation, some young mothers give their child up for adoption, where others continue to nurture their baby with the help of various NGOs who support the young single mothers.
Do I have a right to take away a life that I do not own? Answers they may give me, and solace for my loss will surely follow. But only I will know how human and alive that little creature was…
* Names have been changed