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04 November 2008

New abortion law raises questions in Catholic East Timor

Deutsche Presse Agentur 13 October 2008 Dili: The East Timorese ministry of justice is preparing a penal code which would decriminalise many abortions, but with little visible public support and no public debate, civil society groups are questioning the law's origins.

The law, which is similar to abortion laws in Australia, Timor's southern neighbour, and Portugal, East Timor's former colonial power, would make abortions available to women if the pregnancy threatened the life, physical or mental health of the mother.

Currently East Timor does not have its own penal code and instead relies on an old Indonesian penal code. That penal code outlaws abortion.

Fernanda Borges, the only female party leader in parliament, has accused foreign legal advisors and the UN of pushing the law against the will of Timor's 1 million people, the majority of whom are devoutly Catholic.

“People like UNFPA think it's great because it'll reduce population size, but that's not the point,” Borges said. “The point is development.”

The UN Population Fund has been working in East Timor since the country's break from Indonesia in 1999, but agency representative Hernando Agudelo says it does not promote abortion.

“We are respectful of cultural principles in this country,” he said. “In Timor the people are against abortion, so we must respect this culture's beliefs.”

Agudelo said UNFPA has never been consulted about any abortion laws and he believes the law was written by Portuguese legal advisors within the ministry.

Borges said she, too, suspects Portuguese legal advisers had a hand in the abortion law as Portugal just passed a similar law last year.

East Timor is a former Portuguese colony and the old influence is still strong. Portuguese advisors are common in many ministries and their language is one of the two official languages in Timor.

All laws, including the draft penal code, are written in Portuguese even though most people here can't speak or read the language.

Borges called the abortion law, “a Western thing. I’m against the idea of Western culture that says abortions are a way to reduce population size.”

Even Timorese women's leaders who have pushed publicly for decriminalization say there ought to have been more public debate on the draft penal code. – DPA

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