Three reasons why abortion remains a legal taboo in Malaysia

Tan Mei Zi
Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance Malaysia honorary secretary Dr Subatra Jayaraj said that stigma remains a prevalent hurdle that prevents Malaysians from getting safe abortions. — Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 18 — Malaysia is one of the few Muslim-majority countries in the world where it is legal to get an abortion.

Despite this, many women and those with birthing bodies still face a multitude of barriers that prevent them from terminating an unwanted pregnancy.

A panel titled Abortion: Malaysia’s Legal Taboo was recently held as part of Merdeka Menstrual, an event that aims to spark dialogue on issues such as periods, reproductive health and sex education.

During the session, public health specialist Dr Rosvinder Singh, Sisters in Islam representative Sharifatul Adibah, and Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance Malaysia honorary secretary Dr Subatra Jayaraj discussed three pertinent reasons that currently block access to abortion in the country.

Social stigma and judgment

Section 312 of the Penal Code states that there is an exception for a registered medical practitioner to terminate a pregnancy if the practitioner believes that the pregnancy would risk the life, physical and mental health of the woman.

While Malaysia’s stance is relatively progressive compared to the highly restrictive abortion laws in countries like Brunei and Maldives, it isn’t enough to pull abortion out from the shadow of social stigma.

Health professionals can even refuse to terminate a pregnancy due to their personal values or religious beliefs, even if a pregnancy is the result of an extreme case such as rape or incest.

Dr Subatra said that this often leads to women being frequently transferred across numerous hospitals in the search for a doctor who is willing to perform an abortion and respect the patient’s decision.

“In public healthcare services, termination of pregnancy is only done to save the mother’s life. The judgemental attitude there is huge. 

“Just imagine if a young, unmarried woman walks into a government hospital. Can she get non-judgemental services?

“We’ve had so many cases of patients jumping hospitals because of this,” she said.

Dr Subatra added that out of the estimated 100,000 abortions that take place per year in Malaysia, a majority of them are indeed safe abortions performed by medical providers.

Before the availability of Safe Abortion Service Providers by medical clinics as provided by law, a sizable proportion of them were performed by dangerous and exploitative back-alley practitioners whom women turn to as a last resort.

Dr Rosvinder, who specialises in providing treatment to fringe groups including the transgender community, added that individuals transitioning from female to male face even more stigma when it comes to seeking an abortion due to their non-conforming appearances.

Dr Rosvinder said that transgender individuals face additional challenges in the event of an unwanted pregnancy. — Picture by Choo Choy May

He emphasised how respecting a person regardless of sexual or gender identity is paramount to ensuring that safe healthcare is available to all.

“When it comes to modern medicine, some medical professionals are torn apart by their personal beliefs and the Hippocratic oath that they take.

“We must always respect the person who comes to us, not as a woman or a man or whatever their sexual or gender identity might be. 

“When we show respect to that individual as a human being, the process that follows gets easier,” he said.

Sharifatul also touched on Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Mujahid Yusof Rawa’s recent statements in a BBC interview on practising “compassionate Islam”.

She argued that being a merciful Muslim involved helping women with unwanted pregnancies get the help they need.

“If a woman is suffering from an unwanted pregnancy, this is the time for us to apply ‘maqasid shariah’ (objective of shariah law) and ‘Rahmatan Lil-Alamin’ (mercy to all creations).”

Flaws in public and private healthcare

The difference between access to abortion in rural and urban areas also plays a major role in preventing women from getting the help that they need when faced with an unwanted pregnancy.

According to Dr Rosvinder, many general practitioners (GPs) lack the appropriate equipment to confirm the gestation period of pregnancy and to perform an abortion.

Dr Rosvinder also said that more can be done in terms of educating medical students on abortion to provide Malaysians with better services from the get-go.

An overburdened public healthcare system also means that not enough funds are being channeled towards providing abortions to women who need them, resulting in patients being transferred to private clinics where the price for the procedure can skyrocket beyond what many people can afford.

Dr Subatra also explained that patients might face invasive questions from healthcare professionals that have little to do with the actual abortion, such as queries about their marital status.

If a patient requests termination of pregnancy for the sake of mental health, Dr Subatra said that it’s not uncommon for doctors to say no to the person due to differing views on what constitutes a negative impact on mental well-being.

“I’m not going to wait for a patient to attempt suicide before diagnosing a mental health condition,” she said, adding that many of her clients come to her displaying clear signs of anxiety and distress over an unwanted pregnancy.

Lack of sex education

Sharifatul spoke of the need to separate religion and morality from sex education. — Picture by Choo Choy May

Sex education in Malaysia is failing to empower young people with the knowledge to protect themselves and make informed decisions for their well-being, said Sharifatul.

“We cannot ignore sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) education and comprehensive sex education which in Malaysia is always related to morality and abstinence. 

“You can’t prevent young people from having sex but you can teach them to minimise unwanted pregnancies.”

Dr Subatra echoed her statements, arguing that sex education cannot afford to be politicised if the government hopes to protect the lives of young people.

She recalled how an 18-year-old client of hers was initially unaware that a woman could get pregnant at the age of 17.

“It’s not her fault, because we have an entire generation growing up not knowing about their bodies and how to protect themselves. 

“Politicians like to say that we are advocating for sex education because we are teaching people how to have sex. 

“That’s utter nonsense. We want to let young people know how to protect themselves and how to make decisions for their own well-being throughout their life.”

*Note: A previous edition of the story contained an error which has since been corrected.

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