By Guido Goulart – Associated Press DILI, East Timor The U.N. population agency is urging predominantly Catholic East Timor to soften laws that criminalize abortion and to promote contraceptives, saying in a report released Wednesday that women are dying from secret abortions.
Women living in Timor's remote mountains are using unsafe techniques to terminate pregnancies, such as drinking herbal cocktails, beating their bellies or inserting blunt instruments, the report said, citing hundreds of interviews with women, friends and doctors at several clinics.
Centuries of Portuguese colonial rule left a deeply entrenched Roman Catholic culture in the tiny Southeast Asian nation of less than a million people, and women have an average of seven children.
Last week, East Timor's parliament passed a controversial law permitting abortions when a woman's life is at risk. In all other cases, practitioners can be punished by up to three years in prison for terminating a pregnancy.
About 650 Timorese women per 100,000 births die during pregnancy or shortly after delivery, triple the rate in neighbouring Indonesia and the Philippines, 2006 figures from the U.N. Population Fund and the World Bank show. It is unclear how many of the cases in East Timor may be related to unsafe abortions.
For comparison, the maternal mortality ratio, which is commonly used to gauge a country's health system, is 11 women's deaths per 100,000 births in the United States, according to 2005 figures.
The report was released by the U.N. Population Fund; the Alola Foundation, a women's group established by the wife of East Timor Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao; East Timor's Health Ministry; and the Graduate School for Health Practice at Charles Darwin University, Australia.
It recommends that "modern methods of contraception should be promoted" and that conducting abortions should be removed from the criminal code.
"It is advisable from a public health approach, not to criminalize the termination of pregnancy but regulate it," it said.
Several Roman Catholic Church officials contacted Thursday by The Associated Press declined to comment.
The report detailed the case of a 19-year-old, identified only as Imelda to protect her family's privacy, who visited a clinic and was diagnosed with a serious heart condition and told she was unfit to carry a child. But the doctor gave no further advice or contraceptives.
Imelda returned several months later in labour and died in front of her family 30 minutes after giving birth to a baby girl.
To reduce deaths like hers, the report said Timorese health officials should be required to record abortion-related deaths and increase awareness about family planning.
However, any move to decriminalize abortion could prove unpopular among devout Timorese.
On the streets of the capital, Dili, Carlito Ximenes Araujo, a 43-year-old father of five, said his position on abortion was unwavering and he opposed the new law allowing terminations to save a mother's life.
"Anyone who practices abortion is a killer, and a killer should be treated like a criminal," he said. "This really goes against the Catholic Church doctrine."
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