Let all women make free, informed choices
By Corinna Lim, Jolene Tan and Kokila Annamalai
Population engineering and the policing of women’s bodily autonomy in the name of demographic goals go against the principles of equality and human freedom, and cannot be tolerated.
AWARE welcomes Minister Chan Chun Sing’s recent statements on abortion, affirming that the decision whether to terminate a pregnancy or bring it to term is a highly personal one, which can only be made by each pregnant person for themselves.
We refer to the Straits Times article, “From adoption to abortion” (March 17). The article reported that experts felt “the law could be changed to make those seeking abortion think harder and longer” and that the process of dealing with patients seeking abortion should aim to “persuade more to keep their babies”.
Laws and procedures on abortion should have no aim other than to protect the rights and health of patients, and definitely should not interfere with patients’ reproductive freedom in the name of national agendas to increase fertility.
Few experiences rival gestation and childbirth in physical intensity and impact on health. Pregnancy and parenthood transform lives radically – offering potential joys but also imposing tremendous burdens, especially when workplace gender discrimination remains rife. This particularly affects those who lack social support and acceptance, such as poor, disabled or single parents.
It is therefore important to remove structural barriers to parenthood – such as poverty or discrimination against unwed parents – as these might coerce those who otherwise want children to seek abortions instead. At the same time, we must also trust people to make their own decisions about their bodies and their families’ needs. Each person is best placed to understand their own situation – whether that is someone who may be fired or expelled for being pregnant, a woman whose husband is abusive toward her and her children, or a couple who cannot cope with an additional child.
The suggestion by some Members of Parliament to “raise awareness of adoption rather than abortion” presents adoption as an allegedly easy or straightforward substitute for abortion. Promoting adoption as the “better” choice increases the stigma against abortion and pressurises pregnant people to make this choice, ignoring the fact that carrying a child to full term has very different physical, mental and social implications for the patient.
Notably, in Singapore there is a 10-15% rate of postnatal depression, with unplanned pregnancies causing increased risk. Giving one’s baby up for adoption only exacerbates distress at this difficult time.
This personal choice, which enormously impacts one’s life, must not be appropriated callously by nationalist discourse and framed as a public duty to “make a difference to Singapore’s birth rates” or as a social service of “producing more babies for adoption”. The well-being of children, parents and pregnant people – including their mental health – is far more important than improving fertility statistics.
When a patient decides to terminate a pregnancy, being lectured about an ultrasound image or confronted with bullying and inaccurate language like “real-life babies” and “dead children” causes needless psychological harm and is an intrusion on the patient’s right to privacy. Healthcare professionals and counsellors should allow patients to make free and informed choices for their own reasons, not try to persuade them of anything.
Making access to abortion more distressing may produce a marginal increase in birth rates, but at great human and social cost, including to the resulting children. Children deserve to be raised by people who desire them, not unwilling or unready caregivers, whose family relationships and economic circumstances face increased stress from reluctant parenthood.
Currently, pre-abortion counselling is mandatory only for some women, but not others. There is no counselling for foreigners, rape victims, Singaporeans who have not passed the PSLE or who have three or more children. If they seek an abortion, they get it right away. Why is this so? This policy reeks of eugenics and systematic discrimination, aiming to persuade supposedly socially “desirable” people not to abort, while withholding counselling from others who may very well need guidance to make an informed decision.
All people should have equal access to patient-centred healthcare, including abortion services. Population engineering and the policing of women’s bodily autonomy in the name of demographic goals go against the principles of equality and human freedom, and cannot be tolerated. We call for healthcare decisions to be made by patients (in consultation with medical advisers) on the basis of their individual needs and aspirations, not judgments about their social status.
Corinna Lim is the Executive Director at AWARE, Jolene Tan is a volunteer at AWARE and Kokila Annamalai is the Communications Executive at AWARE. A shorter version of this article was first published in The Straits Times Forum on 24 March 2013.