July 26, 2002
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Malaysia's government is considering changing its laws to let rape or incest victims have abortions - a crime in this mostly Muslim country.
But women's groups said Friday that the proposed changes are likely to have little effect, and that they would fail to address bigger issues of women's rights and family planning.
S. Sothinathan, a lawmaker and senior health ministry official, said the government may amend laws to make abortion legal in "exceptional cases," such as pregnancies due to rape or incest.
The changes would not mean the government condones abortion, he said, but would help reduce the number of "unwed mothers and unwanted babies."
Quoted by the national news agency, Bernama, Sothinathan said Malaysian law currently allows abortion only when pregnancy threatens a woman's life.
The existing law "does not allow room to deal with the various reasons for abortions," he was quoted as saying.
But Ivy Josiah, executive secretary for the nongovernment Women's Aid Organization, said the current law could be interpreted more broadly. It allows for an abortion if "injury to the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman is greater than if the pregnancy were terminated," she said.
No statistics on abortions in Malaysia are available. But women's rights advocates say they are commonly performed despite the current law, and that far more unwanted pregnancies are caused by poor knowledge of contraception and family planning than by rape or incest.
Josiah said sex-related issues were rarely talked about in Malaysia - particularly among the conservative Malay Muslim community, who make up more than two-thirds of the country's 23 million people. Most of the others are ethnic Chinese and Indians who are Christians, Hindus or Buddhists.
"There is just no healthy debate yet about abortion," Josiah told the Associated Press. "The Ministry of Health should be focusing on support for victims, and education for young women about family planning, prevention of unwanted pregnancies, HIV and AIDS."
She said the decision to have an abortion, in a case of a rape or incest, should be left to the woman and her doctor.
"We have to be careful when amending the law, especially considering crimes of coercion, because there are different types of coercion besides rape and incest," she said. "We need to really leave it to the doctor and the woman when and why they want to abort."
Sothinathan the ministry would seek feedback from rights groups and religious bodies before going ahead with the amendments.
Copyright 2002 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.