(Published originally here on Groundviews on 01 October 2017)
At this moment in Sri Lanka, ‘the abortion debate’ has sprung up once again; with the cabinet purportedly attempting to pass a bill which would legalize abortions for women under two circumstances – if the woman is a victim of rape or if the foetus is detected to have ‘Lethal Congenital Malformation’. The Sri Lankan Penal Code of 1883 (yes, that’s right, that’s the year our criminal law is from: 1883) criminalizes all attempts to abort a foetus, including assisting in an abortion – other than when a physician performs an abortion to save the life of the woman – which would of course have to be duly proven.
Sections 303-306 of the Penal Code of Sri Lanka detail this law, and even goes so far as to say, ‘It is not essential to this offence that the offender should know that the act is likely to cause death.’
This Penal Code – that part of our colonial inheritance – has seen the rare amendment, but never in these sections. The ‘abortion debate’ has risen and fallen multiple times over the last few decades, most significantly in 1997 when there was a push similar to this for amendment. There have been objections and blocks right along, often arising from religious institutions. Just some weeks ago our ‘religious leaders’ said, almost unanimously it would seem, ‘NO’.
Many positions on abortion have been re-established via media reports; several opinion pieces have emerged (I speak only of the English) – particularly interesting to me are the ones coming from those seemingly pro-choice, all of which attempt to unpack the moral and philosophical layers of the discourse around abortion and abortion law. Several of these pieces provide traditional Liberal modes of analysis such as offering up ‘better sex education’ or greater access to information around sex and contraception, and greater access to contraceptives as solutions to the ‘problem’ that is abortion.
None of the articles, of this recent spate, as far as I can tell, in the mainstream press or otherwise, have addressed what I believe is the elephant in the room: the patriarchal history of the criminalization of abortion universally, as a method by which the institutions of patriarchal power (the state, the church etc) asserted their control over women’s bodies, sexualities, and sexual lives. Fundamentally, it was a method to limit women’s autonomy and to trap women in these systems – to enforce a reality in which women are reproductive vessels who belong not to themselves but to their husbands, their families, communities and finally, to the state.
Only one article in English that I have read so far attempts to frame the ‘abortion debate’ as a women’s rights issue at all.
It seems strange – and yet revealing – to me that even in 2017, when we talk about abortion law, a large part of the conversation is dedicated to handwringing debates on the morality or immorality of abortion itself, while wholly excluding a more critical and analytical look at the historical, cultural and political circumstances which gave us abortion law to begin with and which continue to fuel abortion law even now.
None of these articles as far as I can tell, attempt to set this discussion against the wider context of the historic arc of a range of other laws which all sought to control decisions related to women’s sexuality and reproductive choices – laws around the dissemination of, or dissemination of information on, various kinds of contraception; laws around women’s ability to autonomously choose delivery methods, like caesareans – some of which are even in practice today . If they did, it would be hard to ignore that abortion laws were not introduced in a vacuum, and are not upheld even today solely out of concern for the life of the foetus.
These laws have historically been tools of control and often arose almost directly as a response to various surges in movements for women’s liberation.
When we do not address these things, we do not address the reality: that the criminalization of abortion has proven to be a crisis for women’s rights, women’s autonomy and women’s health everywhere. We do not address the larger context within which, in Sri Lanka, we are fighting for amendments to abortion law at this moment: a global shift to the far-right, with things such as the ‘Global Gag Rule’ imposed by Trump putting the lives of scores of women in the Global South at risk.
It’s useful to note that, in keeping with tradition, Trump’s gross declaration came days after the historic Women’s March of 21st January 2017 brought around 5 million people on to the streets across the world.
It is important to do this groundwork and interrogate our histories and contexts to really understand what it is we want now. What are we fighting for, when we call for amendments to this harsh law? As feminists, many of us consider the amendments themselves deeply problematic – an inadequate measure at best to win women some maneuvering space in dire circumstances. The amendments themselves do not centre the autonomy of the woman and her ability to make decisions about her own body, her sexuality and her health.
Instead, the proposed amendments could reinforce the idea that women should first be victims of terrible circumstances before she can be afforded her full human rights – in this case, she should either be proven a victim of rape (and/or incest, statutory rape etc.), or have a foetus so tragically malformed that it may not have chance for survival. This ‘victim’ is a ‘poor, innocent’ woman, a victim of crime or a victim of tragedy.
The other ‘ideal’ candidate for legal abortion – this framing given even by many who are sincerely pro-choice – is, of course, ‘the married woman’. The Good Married Woman, Already a Mother. She seeks abortions because she is already the loving mother of three children and she and her legally wedded husband have arrived at the decision together that it would be complicated for them to have a fourth child.
Dinesha Samararatne writes, “Research on abortion in Sri Lanka suggests that most abortion seekers are married” and many of us in the pro-choice wing are quick to use these findings to bolster our arguments, because The State likes to hear that it is married women who are seeking this service, not young, unmarried strumpets. In principle, however, we must stand by every woman’s right to abortion – even the strumpet’s! – whether she is married, unmarried, a victim of rape or someone simply struggling with the problem of an unwanted pregnancy acquired out of a consensual, pleasurable encounter.
We are well aware of the widely held attitudes and beliefs about women who seek abortions which prevail within government. In an essay documenting the 1997 process which sought to bring similar amendments to this section of the Penal Code, S. Abeysekera wrote of the parliamentary debate on this issue, “…throughout the debate, the MPs presented their own personal opinions, coloured, of course, by their general attitudes towards women. These attitudes ranged from seeing women as promiscuous, to conniving or vulnerable.” Unfortunately, not much has changed today.
The medicalization of abortion as a strictly ‘health’ issue is another conflict we have to navigate; previous proposals for amendment, and this one as well, have all been framed medically and spearheaded by those in the medical profession; women’s rights and women’s autonomy are not at the helm of this framing but it is at least concerned about the risks involved in subjecting women to illegal and unregulated abortions. Socio-economic arguments are also made in this way, to say that it is often women from low-income social groups who are most vulnerable to unsafe abortions, as a result of criminalization.
However, while none of these formulations are ideal for many of us, sometimes they’re all we’ve got. We have to be realistic and we have to be strategic. So how do we proceed, especially those of us who are women’s rights activists and advocates?
In her landmark essay ‘Sexuality: A Feminist Issue?’, Abeysekera wrote, “The control of female sexuality is a critical element of patriarchy.” This is what we must pay attention to, when we create and shape discourses around the legitimacy of decriminalizing abortion.
What is important at this juncture is to be able to push the conversations about amendments to the law forward, in the way that they are being proposed now, but to also always be able to bring the conversation back to what is easily invisiblized: patriarchal systems of control, which determine the pushes and pulls; we have to be able to centre women’s autonomy in the debate. We have to be able to articulate seemingly contradictory things together – while pushing for amendments to lighten existing abortion law, we must – and will – continue to articulate our desire for full decriminalization.
Furthermore, what is interesting for us to ponder is the default heteronormative framing of our campaigns and advocacy around ‘reproductive justice’. I think it is our responsibility to consistently link ‘the abortion debate’ to a larger discourse around women’s sexualities and the historic, patriarchal crusade to control women’s sexualities – whether women are ‘reproductive’ or not. The language around ‘reproductive rights’ often excludes queer women who may not choose to bear children, and even heterosexual women who may not wish to bear children, who are already done bearing children, who cannot bear children etc.
We must always find the space to assert our right to sexuality, and bodily and sexual autonomy, parallel to the assertions of our reproductive rights. We must, at this time, continue to broaden and deepen discourses around ‘sexuality’ itself, expanding our understanding of it in a critical and inclusive way. Therefore, the ‘abortion debate’ even in the present day, to me, remains deeply linked to what seem like very traditional feminist concerns: the full autonomy of women – to which sexual and reproductive autonomy is key – and finally, the full liberation of all people from patriarchy.
That elusive right to control your life and body – Abortion: Prabodini Munasinghe (Daily FT, 2017) http://www.ft.lk/opinion/That-elusive-right-to-control-your-life-and-body-%E2%80%93-Abortion/14-64064
 The Abortion Debate: Mismatched and Misplaced?: Dinesha Samararatne (Groundviews, 2017) http://groundviews.org/2017/09/13/the-abortion-debate-mismatched-and-misplaced/