Taiwan failing on gender equality

By Chiang Sheng 江盛  / 

Fri, Nov 09, 2012 - Page 8

On Oct. 26, France’s Lower House, the National Assembly, voted to reimburse expenses for all abortions, but only up to 450 euros (US$573). The bill will also pay for contraception for teenagers between 15 and 18 years old. National medical insurance in France currently fully reimburses the costs of abortions for minors and for the poor, while other women are reimbursed for up to 80 percent of the procedure’s cost and there is partial reimbursement for contraception costs.

The most common morning-after pill, RU-486, which terminates pregnancy by causing the embryo to detach from the uterine wall, was invented by the French. France also allows minors to have abortions without parental consent. The tripartite motto, “liberty, equality, fraternity,” promulgated during the French Revolution in the late 18th century, are ideals that the French still actively pursue today and the French government is still there to take care of the needs of its people.

The UK’s National Health Service also offers free abortions. British liberals believe it is important to help women who are trying to get abortions, but they still think contraception is the best method. That is why, in every university, information regarding safe sex is considered an indispensable part of health education for all students. When new students start school, they are given ample information on the subject and are provided with free contraceptives. For example, at the prestigious University of Cambridge about 3,500 students are given free condoms every year. The school limits each student to taking up to 60 condoms per week, which means it has the means to supply 10.92 million condoms annually. One female student at the University of Liverpool has been quoted as saying that she believes the demand for contraceptives is even higher at her school.

When Vivian Dickerson was elected president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the organization proposed a set of woman’s healthcare rights written by Dickerson, covering 10 points: safety and accountability in healthcare; freedom from domestic and sociopolitical violence both in the US and throughout the world; appropriate and effective insurance coverage; equity in gender-specific research; freedom from discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, race or ethnicity; socioeconomic and political equality; accessible, affordable and safe forms of contraception, including post-coital contraceptives; freedom of reproductive choice; culturally sensitive education and information; and access to healing environments and integrative approaches to health and healthcare.

However, in Taiwan there is not even reliable abortion data or enough health officials knowledgeable about abortion-related issues. Taiwan’s National Health Insurance offers only partial reimbursement for therapeutic abortions and no reimbursements for abortions performed because a pregnancy affects a woman’s “mental health or family life,” which are equally legitimate reasons for getting an abortion.

Why is it that legal academics, women’s rights groups or doctors are not voicing opposition to this obvious case of discrimination?

About 70,000 abortions are performed in the nation every year. Last summer, when Lue Hung-chi (呂鴻基), a retired professor of pediatrics at National Taiwan University, gave the inflated figure of 500,000 for the number of abortions performed in Taiwan each year, he was trying to have abortion legislation amended to restrict women’s reproductive rights.

It is most unfortunate that these forces running counter to overall gender equality and prevailing international trends are being included as part of the amendments being considered for the Genetic Health Act (優生保健法). These amendments to the act will require medical institutions to provide mandatory counseling, compulsory three-day reflection periods prior to getting abortions, mandatory notification of a woman’s husband, consent from parents for girls under the age of 18, as well as compulsory therapeutic counseling for minors.

What about contraception? With more than 40,000 people per square kilometer, New Taipei City’s (新北市) Yonghe District (永和) is among the most densely populated areas in the world, but the National Health Insurance system does not cover tubal ligation, contraceptive pills or contraceptive devices. The Taiwanese education system is busy looking like it cares about people’s lives and providing proper sex education, but in recent years, National Taiwan University (NTU) and National Taiwan Normal University have been picking fights with students for distributing free condoms during freshmen orientation or in dormitories.

Despite the Ministry of Education’s NT$50 billion (US$1.7 billion) five-year program to help create top international universities in Taiwan, NTU continues to lag far behind Cambridge, and it can’t even begin to compete with Cambridge when it comes to the distribution of condoms. The negligence and hypocrisy present in Taiwan’s education system are major contributors when it comes to minors committing suicide because of unwanted pregnancies.

Last month, a UN group of independent experts urged countries to eliminate laws classifying adultery as a criminal offense, and said that criminalizing sexual relations between consenting adults violates their right to privacy. This is of direct relevance to Taiwan. Taiwan is fraught with the unseemly tradition of trying to catch adulterers in the act and newspapers are inundated with such stories. Businesses specializing in catching adulterers are thriving and their ads can be seen all over the place. The government needs to recognize how dire the situation is and step up to help its people.

Chiang Sheng is an attending physician in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mackay Memorial Hospital.

Translated by Kyle Jeffcoat