The article “Don’t Force Parenthood by Denying Abortion” by Ranjana Raghunathan, Jolene Tan and Vivienne Wee, containing their opinions on the never-ending abortion debate, was highly disturbing.
The writers are mistaken on two main fronts: (1) They believe that there will be a nation-wide catastrophe if access to abortion in Singapore is restricted in any way and feel outraged by attempts to justify the shortening of time limits or instituting parental controls. (2) They seem aggrieved by the “judgmental and biased” way we teaches sex education in our schools, especially because abstinence is promoted as the most effective way of birth control, and strongly feel that schools should not “falsely (project) human identity” on a baby in the womb.
(1) Restricting Abortion Time Limits
Raghunathan, Tan and Wee contend that restricting access to abortion, for example by shortening the time limits as to when an abortion can be carried out legally, will aggravate the situation by forcing women to go underground. First, the writers assume than Singaporean women are so uneducated that they can remain unaware of their pregnancy until the second or third trimester. This idea is absurd. Second, the vast majority of women would rather go through a safe pregnancy than resort to an unclean, sub-par abortion provider where their lives would be put at risk. The tiresome argument of the high numbers of backstreet abortions is a myth that has already been debunked. Moreover, the fatality rate of legal abortions is higher than most pro-choice advocated would like to admit – as said by the authors themselves, it is an invasive and dangerous procedure that puts the mother’s life at risk.
The writers are also overly optimistic to think that educated couples would natural prefer contraception to abortion. Both married and unmarried couples frequently choose to engage in unprotected sex even though they are informed and aware of available birth control methods. (Logic and reason are not commodities easily found in large quantities in the throes of passion.) The truth is that when abortion is made illegal or at least restricted so that abortion-on-demand is not accepted as the norm, abortion rates plummet. It is not because pregnant mothers go overseas to obtain an abortion (they are a tiny minority), but rather because laws play a large role in shaping the habits, practices and expectations of society. Less liberal abortion laws will send a message that families and couples cannot use abortion as a form of birth control, encourage the use of responsible contraception and go towards reducing male and female promiscuity among youth.
On the point about restraining sexual behaviour which the authors take so much umbrage with, if liberals have been so successful in urging people to curb their carbon footprint to save a few trees, there is no doubt they can achieve equal success in encouraging men and women to curb our reckless sexual habits to save a few human babies. It may be a hard pill to swallow these days with the media and popular culture selling us the idea that everyone can have sex without strings attached, but it is the hard-hitting reality that we must take personally responsibility for our actions, especially when our actions produce an independent new human being.
The liberal abortion laws enacted in Singapore in 1969, and expanded by subsequent amendment in 1974, are no longer justified. As Prof Tan Seow Hon and many others like IonSG have commented, the Minister of Health at the time, Mr. Chua Sian Chin, clearly had two objectives in mind when arguing for more liberal abortion laws: (1) Eugenics, and (2) Population control. These are not defensible reasons for abortion; humans have no locus standi to select which baby gets to live and die based on race, traits, or any disabilities he or she has, nor should humans play a numbers game and advocate the killing of babies so as to bring that society’s birthrate under control. Such views are completely unacceptable in the civilised world today and should be eradicated.
Despite protestations from Members of Parliament with a conscience, especially those who believed in the sanctity of human life, the bill was passed and Singapore has not looked back since. It is foolish to take the view that the (objectionable) reasons given in support of abortion by our elected representatives in 1969 and 1974 still apply wholesale in today’s social context. With all the wonders of science and technology including 3D and 4D ultrasound, greater medical knowledge about foetal pain, and the psychological trauma and depression suffered by women who have undergone abortions, we should not live in ignorance like our ancestors in the Middle Ages but instead consider reviewing these abortion laws again.
Raghunathan, Tan and Wee then turn to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, pointing out that it categorises the denial of abortion and post-abortion services as torture. But we must also bear in mind that such a report directly contradict the definition of ‘child’ per Article 1 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) as any human being below the age of 18. This allows room for interpretation among member states but clearly presents a stronger argument for the protection of the lives of foetuses than the argument for killing them.
For the purposes of the present Convention, a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier. (Article 1, UNCRC)
In addition, the UNCRC argues for the safeguarding of the child before as well as after birth, implying that babies in the womb are not a clump of cells, but living human beings worthy of protection.
Bearing in mind that, as indicated in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth… (UNCRC)
How can it be torture to deny a mother the right to kill her own baby and at the same time argue for the highest levels of protection to be granted to children, the most vulnerable and defenceless members of our community? Is the UN schizophrenic? Can this internal contradiction ever be resolved? It might be helpful to note that the UN report on torture is not a legally binding document, whereas the UNCRC is legally binding because Singapore has acceded to it in 1995.
At the heart of the matter, abortion is not about denying women the autonomy over their own bodies, but rather, denying a child in the womb the right to life. Is the baby in the womb a natural extension of the mother? Is the DNA of the baby exactly the same as the mother’s? The answer to both questions is a resounding no. Babies are distinct individuals who have their own set of DNA, though they derive it from both biological parents, and who should be accorded separate rights from the mother. Women, just like men, have freedom over their own body, but they should not be allowed to have autonomy over someone else’s.
(2) Sex Education
Choosing to teach abstinence is scientifically and logically sound. If the human sperm and human egg unite, a human embryo will be formed and eventually develop into a human foetus. If a man and woman do not have sex (abstinence), the egg will not be fertilised by the sperm and she will not be pregnant with a baby. How is it judgmental and biased to teach biological facts? In Singapore, this is Primary school level Science (under the topic of Life Cycles, if you must know). Abstinence is 100% effective and should not be shelved as a ‘prudish’ ideology just because some liberal adults wish to impose their alternative lifestyle on the rest of society. Furthermore, teaching it will not hurt the ability of people to make informed decisions about sex later in life, but instead provide a good grounding for their sexual habits and practices.
There is a time and place for everything. While might not be productive to encourage awareness and access to contraception at such a young age for obvious reasons, though would be necessary when the student is older (sex education starts at Primary 4-5 and there is an extended, advanced course at the Secondary level). Ultimately, sex education should continue to emphasise the notion that sex should take place within the confines of a loving relationship between husband and wife. This doctrine of monogamy (endorsed by the preamble of the Women’s Charter) is the best thing to teach our young girls and boys because it sets the framework for building strong, healthy families in the future.
The idea that babies in the womb are living and human is scientifically sound, and the bone of contention is rather with the legal definition of personhood. Raghunathan, Tan and Wee conflate these two concepts when they argue for their position based on ‘medical facts’. It would not be ill-informed to project a human identity on a blastocyst, embryo or foetus because a simple DNA test would reveal that the embryo is indeed human (and not a fish or monkey) and observation over several days will tell doctors and scientists that the embryo is indeed alive and growing (and not dead). Therefore, it cannot be refuted or denied that babies in the womb, at any stage of development, are human and alive.
The real issue is with the legal definition of a foetus and whether we as a society are prepared to confer it with the status of ‘personhood’. To argue that a baby in the womb, though 100% human and 100% alive, is not a ‘person’ is very dangerous. Making such a distinction only serves to further dehumanise the baby, and this painfully recalls the grotesque actions by Hitler and Nazi Germany to strip the Jewish people of legal personhood in the (evil but completely legally) Nuremberg Laws of 1935, or the institution of slavery in 18th and 19th century USA and South America, or racist segregationist policies in apartheid South Africa from the 1950s to 1990s, or the the genocidal mass slaughter of the Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda in 1994.
This is not pure rhetoric and fanciful thinking. History has proven time and time again that whenever a group of people have tried to delegitimise another racial, ethnic, religious or social group by claiming they are not human (or claiming they are cockroaches, apes and monkeys, dogs, etc), it ultimately leads to violent murder and bloodshed. Just as how the removal of personhood from the Jews led to the cruel (legal) slaughter of 6 million innocent Jewish men, women and children in Europe, the removal of personhood from foetuses has, and will continue to, cause the cruel (and legal) slaughter of millions of babies worldwide.
Raghunathan, Tan and Wee are absolutely correct when they say that “decisions to abort pregnancies are not to be made lightly” because ultimately the subject of an abortion is an innocent non-consenting child who has no capability (though he or she has the potential) to speak up for itself. As the slogan goes, there would be no abortion if babies could vote. As human beings, we have the duty to speak up for fellow humans who suffer injustice and indignity regardless of their location or station in life – whether they are mentally-handicapped Singaporeans, persecuted people living under foreign dictatorships, impoverished foreign workers who are exploited and abused, needy, elderly residents, ex-convicts striving to be law-abiding, or babies in the womb.
People should not base their decision to murder their own child on irrelevant factors such as the physical and mental health of the mother, the burden of motherhood and childcare, the stigma of single parenthood, economic difficulties, and lifestyle choices. Contrary to popular belief, this will not violate the free will of women in any way; they are allowed to choose – and they made their choice to have unprotected sex 9 months ago. We do not live under a totalitarian, fundamentalist dictatorship where women are stoned for adultery or pre-marital sex, but many of us do not want to live in an oppressive, cold-hearted society where thousands of innocent babies are murdered without a second thought merely because their mothers and fathers prefer not to take responsibility for their actions and feel the baby will interfere with their current lifestyle.
It is hypocritical for a feminist organisation like AWARE to take the view that child rearing is still largely a woman’s responsibility and make policy choices based on that outdated concept. Rather, we as a society should recognise the importance of the role that fathers play in the family and work hard to make them feel they can contribute significantly to the development of their children. To say that abortion is a woman’s choice is sexist – it puts the burden solely on the shoulders of the mother by isolating her as a decision-maker and depriving her of any moral support and assistance, and at the same time, it excludes the father from assuming any responsibility for the child and family that he has helped to create.
A baby has long-term consequences for both parents. Instead of campaigning to ensure the giant rubbish chute for ‘unwanted children’ remains open, AWARE (and concerned citizens of Singapore) should focus on respecting the rights of mothers and fathers, and fight to give them all the available opportunities and resources to bring up their child safely with wisdom and love.