Sri Lanka has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, so Justice Minister Ali Sabry’s recent call on Parliament to consider legalizing abortion in cases of rape is a significant development. The government should act quickly to reform the law and go further to defend women’s equal rights by allowing all women to have access to abortion.
Under a Sri Lankan law dating back to 1883, anyone who deliberately causes a miscarriage, except for the purpose of saving a woman’s life, can be imprisoned for up to three years. The sentence can increase to up to seven years if the woman is “quick with the child”, an archaic expression meaning that the movement of the fetus can be felt. The same penalties apply to the person who performs an abortion and to the woman who has an abortion.
In December, a 13-year-old girl from Mullaithivu died following an illegal abortion after she was allegedly raped by a family member. Research conducted in 2015 revealed that unsafe abortions are responsible for 10-13% of maternal deaths in Sri Lanka, making it the third leading cause of death during pregnancy. But because the procedure is illegal, there is little data. A still frequently cited study dates back to 1999, showing an abortion rate of nearly 1 in 20 among women and girls aged 15-49. In 2016, the Ministry of Health estimated that 658 abortions were performed every day in Sri Lanka.
Denying women and girls access to safe and legal abortions compromises many human rights, including the right to life, to health, to freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, to physical integrity, non-discrimination, privacy and equality, and the right to decide the number and spacing of children.
For decades there have been calls for reform, including proposals by the Law Commission of Sri Lanka in 2013 to legalize abortion in cases of rape. However, successive governments failed to pass new laws.
The government must act. The Minister of Justice should introduce a bill to decriminalize abortion not just for rape victims, but for everyone.