15 November 2009

New abortion laws cause debate in East Timor

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News November 13, 2009 -transcripts- New abortion laws cause debate in East Timor Sara Everingham

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: The predominantly Catholic country of East Timor has introduced controversial new laws on abortion. They don't go as far as women's groups had hoped - they've been campaigning for legal abortion to be extended to cases of rape and incest. But the Catholic Church rejected those proposals, as Sara Everingham reports.

SARA EVERINGHAM, REPORTER: It's standing room only at Sunday mass in Dili. In this strongly Catholic country, abortion is a sensitive topic. Just this year, the Parliament passed new laws making abortion a crime, except when three doctors decide a woman's life is in danger. But they do not allow abortions in cases of rape and incest.

ALITA VERDIAL, ALOLA FOUNDATION (voiceover translation): It's not realistic because to find enough doctors in the districts is very hard.

FRANCESCA ALVES TAOLIN, RED FETO WOMEN'S GROUPS (voiceover translation): Our understanding of the law is that it doesn't give enough value to women's rights.

SARA EVERINGHAM: The church is opposed to any more exceptions.

MARTINHO GUSMAO, DIOCESE OF BAUCAU: We have to restrict them. We cannot accept case like incest and rape. It cannot be accepted.

SARA EVERINGHAM: At this busy Dili clinic, Dr Dan Murphy says he gets a request every day for a termination, even though his hands are tied by the law.

DAN MURPHY, BAIRO PITE CLINIC: Many times they're not married, they happen to get pregnant and just like in any other country, it could be incest, it could be rape, it could be just a one-night episode that you really didn't want to do, but you were pressured.

SARA EVERINGHAM: He says he also sees women who've attempted to induce an abortion themselves.

A recent report initiated by one of the women's groups here in Dili found that women in East Timor are dying from unsafe abortions, but because of a lack of reporting, the numbers aren't known. The women's groups fear those deaths will continue to happen under this new law.

East Timor's First Lady, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, has been a strong proponent of women's rights.

KIRSTY SWORD GUSMAO, EAST TIMOR'S FIRST LADY: It takes, I guess, leaders of the Government and of the country to be very courageous and honest in looking at themselves and at their society and also at their duty to women, to ensure that women are not victimised twice, first as a victim of rape or incest and then secondly by having to, you know, raise a child that's born from that situation.

SARA EVERINGHAM: Father Martinho Gusmao from the Diocese of Baucau says most people in East Timor don't want any abortion at all.

MARTINHO GUSMAO: If you explain to the people in the ground, they are shock that our state allow the abortion. I don't think that the women group can explain to the people in the ground that we accept abortion for (inaudible). They will kill you.

KIRSTY SWORD GUSMAO: I think that given the current state of Timorese society, and as I mentioned, the very conservative nature of society and traditional belief systems and so on, I don't think it's an altogether bad outcome. And given that is, you know, a process, I think we possibly still have quite a long struggle on our hands.

SARA EVERINGHAM: The battle over abortion reform is set to continue - yet another difficult debate as East Timor's democracy develops. Sara Everingham, Lateline.

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