Indonesia: Religious groups oppose safe abortion legislation

Women's rights groups who are campaigning for widening the scope of abortion in Indonesia are calling for an amendment to a colonial era law that puts poor women at risk.
In 2003, a parliamentary commission submitted a draft bill to legalise abortion, but this never made it to parliament. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, and Muslim leaders have been staunchly opposed to any legalisation of the practice - a viewpoint shared strongly by other religious minorities, especially the Christians.
Tini Hadad, secretary general of the Association for Women's Health, says Indonesia has one of the world’s highest rates of deaths from unsafe abortions. "This is because the current laws are totally inadequate," she told IPS.

The Association for Women's Health is part of the Women’s Network for a National Legislation Programme, a coalition of some 30 women’s rights groups that has been campaigning for improved family planning services since 2005.

When the 2003 bill was drafted, senior representatives of the then-five officially recognised religions in the country - Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism - issued a rare joint statement in condemnation. Their opposition has continued.

The current laws are confusing and somehow contradicting. The Criminal Code says that any forcible ending of a pregnancy is a criminal offence. Doctors caught performing illegal abortions face up to 15 years in prison, while the woman can get a four-year term.

But the 1992 Health Law vaguely seems to allow the practice, stating that "certain medical procedures" can be performed to "save pregnant mothers and their foetuses."

In the meantime, each year, millions of Indonesian women become pregnant unintentionally, and many choose to end their pregnancies in secret.

According to a 2000 survey carried out by the Centre for Health Research, University of Indonesia, the number of women who have illegal abortions could be as high as 2 million a year. Other researches have estimated the number to be closer to 2.5 million.

This situation has led to a flourishing underground practice of birth termination that heavily penalises the poor. Abortions are carried out by midwifes or doctors, all illegal. The fee for the procedure is said to vary greatly but to be in the region of 500,000 to 1.8 million rupiah (50 to 180 dollars) - out of the reach of a majority of people. Forty percent of the 240 million Indonesians live on less than 2 dollars a day, according to the World Bank.

Poor women are forced to seek the help of unlicensed doctors or traditional healers, who use a variety of methods. Their practices are quite dangerous and have contributed to Indonesia having the highest mortality rate from pregnancy-related causes in the region.

The U.N. children's fund, UNICEF, estimates that in 2000, 450 of every 100,000 Indonesian women died from pregnancy-related cause compared to six deaths in Singapore and 160 in relatively poor Vietnam. Local NGOs believe the ratio is even higher, since deaths in the outer islands of the archipelago may not be reported, or reported to be from different causes.

Hadad from the Association of Women's Health asserts that 10 to 15 percent of all unsafe abortions lead to serious complications, including death.

She argues that there is a need for a more comprehensive approach to family planning including wider criteria for allowing abortion.

"We do not want abortion to be legal," she says, "this is not what we are asking. We want the health law to be updated and to include a chapter on safe abortion. Abortion should be managed safely with the help of counseling, and in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organisation."

Her position is largely shared by Dr Firman Lubis, head of the Coalition for a Healthy Indonesia and professor at University of Indonesia.

"The current law (that regulates abortion, the criminal law) dates back to colonial times and certainly needs changing. The Indonesian context today is very different to how it was during the Dutch times," he said to IPS.

"Also, medical conditions that allow for the possibility of abortion should not be limited to 'critical' conditions but should include the physical condition of the mother. For example, if the mother is too old, or has had too many children, abortion should also be considered."

In addition, abortion must be considered in cases of "failure of contraceptive measures and rape," he adds.

Firman also called for the government to provide clinics for safe abortions. "Everyone knows how one kind of 'jamu' (Indonesian traditional herb medicine) is used as an abortion inducer. It is sold throughout Indonesia, and it is unsafe. There are many cases to prove that the jamu did not lead to abortion, but caused the child to be born disabled instead."

24 August 2009

By Fabio Scarpello

Source: IPS