Lessons from Singapore’s Abortion Act debate

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The recent arguments over Section 377A of the Penal Code quickly coalesced into two distinct and opposing camps – each armed with a set of values that they hold dear and immutable.

A 2007 study which examined the more than 10,000 comments left on the online petitions, both for and against repealing 377A, concluded that the main battleground was rights versus morals, and that is still likely the case today. This fault line looks deep and irreconcilable [1] – for one side to win, the other must lose; as a result, there is a fear that this will tear Singapore society apart. Because of this, there are some who would prefer not to talk about the issue at all – sure, it will not disappear, but at least things will not get worse!

However, we, the writers of this article, are more optimistic about Singaporean society. We believe that Singaporeans have the ability to accommodate, compromise, and ultimately respect each others’ beliefs and value systems. We say this because the lessons that we can learn from the debate between 1969 and 1974 over the issue of abortion tells us that we are far more capable of dealing with difficult, divisive issues that some might choose to believe.

Deja vu – a question of morals vs. rights again

Many Singaporeans may not be old enough to remember this divisive issue that, at the time, had split Singapore apart in a similar way. The arguments brought up by both sides resemble our current debate over 377A. Take a look at the parliamentary speeches made on the issue of abortion between 1969 and 1974 – we see the same dichotomy: morality versus rights. During the reading of the 1969 Abortion Bill:

“Mr. Sia Khoon Seng (Moulmein) said that liberalising the abortion law could undo the Government’s efforts to improve social and moral standards. Instead of allowing women to abort an unwanted pregnancy, one should find ways to make the mother learn to want the unwelcomed pregnancy.

The Bill, he argued, would work against the welfare of the community as it would infringe upon certain common moral values.

The fundamental principle behind a good law must generally concern itself with the general welfare of the public, even if such a law might encroach upon the rights of a minority group.” [2]

Sounds familiar? On the other hand, those who supported abortion argued:

“The issue is simple – the right of an individual to have a choice to abort an unwanted pregnancy under specified conditions just as it is the right of every human being to enjoy a meaningful life, a right to liberty and a right to privacy (Minister for Health, Chua Sian Chin).” [3]

Even though the PAP controlled the entire parliament at the time, and therefore passing any law was as easy as you can possibly imagine, the party whip was lifted. All MPs were told to vote according to their conscience – reflecting both the seriousness and the sensitivity of this issue. While there may have been utilitarian arguments of family planning and population control involved, it was recognized that this was ultimately an issue of rights and morality which mattered to those Singaporeans affected in a very deep and special way.

With 32 votes in favour, 10 against, abortion was legalized amidst a hail of objection from various segments of society.

What is the law supposed to do for us?

What was so special about Singapore’s decision to legalize abortion? What lesson can we learn from it? Singapore’s bold decision on abortion, which made us more progressive than most other countries in the world at the time, captures the essence of what the law should do for us – that is, to ensure that all communities have the opportunity to live fruitful and happy lives by ensuring everyone has minimum basket of freedoms, and not by legislating for any specific majority or minority value system.

Despite the immense fault lines in relation to morality and individual rights, more than 45 years later, the legality of abortion is not something that comes under question. We have come to accept it as a fundamental aspect of women’s rights while also accepting that those who object to it are free to refrain from doing it, or to educate their children and loved ones about what they see as the moral ills of abortion.

In other words, their moral objections are viewed by society as an insufficient reason to restrict the rights and freedoms of those who do not share their beliefs. Today, the right to an abortion has been accepted part of a minimum basket of rights that all women should have access to, even though many might oppose it. Hence, even though both sides have diametrically opposed views on abortion, they nonetheless have found a way to co-exist peacefully.

Furthermore, this minimum basket of freedoms also involves certain ‘rules of engagement’ in relation to civic discourse that allows all communities to agree to disagree on the issues that they do not see eye-to-eye on.

Singapore’s stance on abortion appears to have captured this. Even though opponents of abortion cannot force their beliefs onto those who disagree with them, they remain free to express their views. This approach allows all communities to espouse their own preferred code of conduct while ensuring that they do not reduce the ability of other communities to live the lives they desire.

It is only with this in mind that Singapore, a country which legalised abortion could, in 1987, allow Mother Teresa come to the country to speak and publicly denounce abortion in front a predominantly Catholic Singaporean audience.

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Mother Teresa speaking at Toa Payoh Stadium, with the Catholic Archbishop of Singapore Gregory Yong, seated. 10 January 1987.

This approach to balancing the interests of different communities works because it allows Singaporeans from different walks of life to live the lives they desire, and enjoy for themselves the respective values they cherish.

Approaching 377A

Returning to 377A, it is easy to see how its divisiveness has led many politicians to avoid confronting the topic out of a fear that it would tear society apart. Yet, looking at how Singaporeans dealt with abortion since 1969, we are clearly a society that has the ability to respect each other’s beliefs and practices.

If we can confront the divisive issue of abortion without our society falling apart, we can do the same with 377A. Similarly, if we can accept that, in relation to abortion, everyone should enjoy a minimum basket of rights and be protected from those intending to impose their belief-systems on them, we can do the same with 377A. Finally, if we can accept that legalizing abortion does not infringe on the ability of anti-abortionists to live their lives as they desire and express their objections, we can also do the same with 377A.

We would like to end off with a 2005 quote from former Minister of Communications and Information and former Minister of Muslim Affairs, Dr. Yaccob Ibrahim, that is relevant to all communities in Singapore:

“[T]here are many things that exist around us which we do not agree with as Muslims, but accept as part of the wider landscape. Gambling, drinking and other activities that Muslims consider vices are not banned in Singapore. We understand that in our multi ethnic and multi-religious society, it is not tenable for Government policies to be dictated by the views of one or any groups. If we go down that road, then should we ban abortion or the use of condoms because some religious groups are against them? Or, should we ban the sale of meat in line with the convictions of groups who believe animals should not be slaughtered for food? It is in the interest of all Singaporeans that policies are not dictated by the view of any group.”

Written by Lee Ke Lin and Rio Hoe

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Notes

[1] Detenber, Benjamin H., Mark Cenite, Shuhua Zhou, Shelly Malik, and Rachel L. Neo. “Rights Versus Morality: Online Debate about Decriminalization of Gay Sex in Singapore.” Journal of Homosexuality 61, no. 9 (2014): 1313-1333.

[2] The Straits Times. The Right to be Born vs the Pangs of Motherhood. 10 April 1969.

[3] The Straits times. Abortion Bill: Simple issue, says Minister. 9 April 1969.

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