DILI (UCAN) -- Timor Leste has approved a law allowing emergency abortions despite objections from the Catholic Church, whose members make up 95 percent of the population.
The country's parliament approved a penal code article dealing with abortion after discussions May 25-26. The law criminalizes abortion but also says the life of a mother should be prioritized over the life of her unborn child in an emergency situation. These provisions were in the proposed legislation, but the lawmakers added that three doctors and the parents must agree "to extract an embryo from the mother."
Maria Paixao, a Social-Democrat Party member of parliament, explained afterward that extracting an embryo should "only be done to save the mother's life, and if she is unconscious, the husband must agree."
Paixao pointed out that because of the lack of doctors in rural areas, Section 9 of the newly passed Article 141 allows Health Ministry-accredited midwifes to perform an abortion.
Bishop Alberto Ricardo da Silva of Dili and Bishop Basilio do Nascimento of Baucau, who head the two Catholic dioceses that cover Timor Leste, observed the parliamentary deliberations. Earlier they told UCA News the Church in principle does not support the abortion law, because the Church position is that doctors should try to save both mother and baby in an emergency.
"We are against the law, as explained on our pastoral note from the two dioceses," Bishop da Silva said.
The pastoral note in Portuguese language, dated April 15 and signed by both bishops, cited various Church documents in affirming the sacred and inviolable nature of life from conception to death. It also asserted that this is in keeping with Timorese culture and that abortion is a violation of the basic human right to life.
The note appealed to social and political leaders to provide for the basic needs of mothers and children from the time of conception and for punishing those responsible for violence against woman and children.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, is a "criminal" practice ... gravely contrary to the moral law. The Church imposes the canonical penalty of excommunication for this crime against human life."
Joana Mendez, 30, a university student and a Catholic, worries that legalizing abortion would provide room for free sex, because "once a girl is pregnant, she can have an abortion." In her view, it is more important to implement sex education in schools and communities so people are aware of the risks involved in sexual relations outside of marriage.
Domingos de Sousa, 25, another Catholic and university student, described the abortion law as unnecessary and said the government should have enacted a law to take care of unwed mothers and their children instead. Moreover, the government should pay more attention to infrastructure, education, health and economics.
"There are a lot of bad roads in rural areas, no electricity or water," he observed. "Why doesn't the government set a priority in solving these problems?"
Timor Leste, which became fully independent on May 20, 2002, after more than two years under a transitional U.N. administration, has a population of about 1 million. It has been using the Indonesian Penal Code in handling criminal cases since 1975, the beginning of 24 years of Indonesian rule.