Sun, Jul 11, 2004 - Page 2 News List

Row erupts over draft changes to abortion law

SOCIETY Social groups expressed concern that a revision of the law to prevent abortions after the 12th week of pregnancy could pressure women into having early abortions

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Following the Department of Health's (DOH) proposal last week to make the abortion law more strict, the issue has again sparked contention and attracted attention from medical circles and social groups.

Passed in 1984, the Genetic Health Law (優生保健法) legalized abortions up to the 24th week of pregnancy.

Last week, the DOH proposed a revision of the law, cutting the limit from 24 weeks to 12 weeks and requiring those who opt for an abortion to undergo three days of mediation and seek counseling before the procedure can be conducted.

By making the law more stringent, the DOH hopes to counter the rising abortion rate and protect the right to life.

"In light of medical advances which allow premature babies to survive at 22 weeks, we need to rethink whether it is moral and ethical to abort fetuses older than three months," said Bureau of Health Promotion Director Lin Hsiu-jean (林秀娟).

Yet the DOH's well-intended proposal might force a rash decision on pregnant women. According to Hsu Jenn-jeih (徐振傑), secretary-general of the Taiwan Society of Perinatology, most cases of deformed fetuses or hereditary diseases are detectable only in the second trimester of pregnancy. For instance, pregnant women need to wait until the 16th or even the 20th week to know if their babies have Down's syndrome, a disease caused by an error in cell division and leading to varying degrees of mental retardation in children.

The draft also invites debate on bio-ethics. Both Lin and Hsu admitted that there is no consensus on the legal or scientific definition of the beginning of life.

"People have different opinions about whether a zygote, embryo or fetus is a human being," Hsu said.

The fetus' right to life might also conflict with the rights of women. Article 9, No. 6, of the Genetic Health Law states that women can have an abortion if pregnancy damages their mental or physical health and affects their family life. However, the legal limit on when an abortion can be performed shuts hospitals' doors for some, in which case there is the option of turning to private clinics or even unlicensed surgeons.

"I have had teenagers that have been pregnant for longer than 6 months coming to me and asking for an abortion. Yet the hospital cannot take them," Hsu said.

Others also expressed concern that lowering the legal limit for abortion could encroach on women's rights.

"Of course women have the liberty to make a choice based on what they think is an opportune moment," said Garden of Hope Foundation director Chi Hui-jung (紀惠容).

According to Chi, there are ways to protect women's right to self-determination and to avert reckless abortions at the same time. One of these is strengthening social support.

"In Taiwan, many of those demanding abortions are teenagers who do not practise safe sex. These teenagers need doctors' guidance and social workers' assistance. We want to make sure the decision to have an abortion is not made in ignorance or fear," Chi said.

"Our foundation has an adoption program that helps babies find homes. I believe that, in a society where children are wanted and loved, where families are strong and secure, the abortion rate will naturally drop," Chi said.

The Executive Yuan is currently reviewing the DOH's draft.

"We hope to benefit from opinions from all sides before we send the draft to the Legislative Yuan by the end of September," said Wang Je-chau (王哲超), the director of DOH's public relations office.

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