In so much of the Western world, abortion laws were greatly liberalised in the 60s and 70s. This is true of Singapore as well. The 1969 Abortion Act in Singapore allowed abortion under four conditions, but those were done away with in the much more liberal 1974 Abortion Act.
The Termination of Pregnancy Act, Revised Edition 1985, kept things more or less the same, with no restrictions on abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, and those after prohibited unless “immediately necessary to save the life or to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman” (which is often allowed to mean anything).
From the peak number of abortions in 1985 (23,512), there has been a steady decline since then. Here are the figures from the past decade:
Compare the abortions in 2013 (9282) with that with live births (39,720): roughly one fifth of all pregnancies ended in abortion that year (that figure of course does not take into account chemical abortions and so on).
Part of the rationale early on for abortion was to prevent a population explosion, and to maintain the high standard of living in Singapore. That was the case made by the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. In a December 29 1969 speech he said in part:
Every person, genius or moron, has a right to reproduce himself. So we assume that a married pair will want to be allowed two children to replace them. This is already the average size family of the skilled industrial worker in Europe. In Singapore we still allow three for good measure. Beyond the three children, the costs of subsidised housing, socialised medicine and free education should be transferred to the parent. We have changed the priorities in public housing, by not awarding more points for more children. One day we may have to put disincentives or penalties on the other social services.
By introducing this new abortion law together with the companion voluntary sterilisation law, we are making possible the exercise of voluntary choice. But we must keep a close watch on the result of the new laws and the patterns of use which will emerge.
It is not unlikely that the people who will want to restrict their families are the better educated parents in better paid jobs. They are the people who already understand that their children’s future depends on their being able to care for their health, education and upbringing.
But these policies may have worked too well. The fertility rate for Singapore in 1960 was 5.5 children per woman. But by 2014 it was way down to 1.19, well below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. So of late Singapore has been working on reversing this worrying trend, for example with the Marriage and Parenthood Package introduced in early 2013 which had a raft of measures to help boost the declining birth rate.
Speaking to this and related issues, Tan Seow Hon, an Associate Professor at the School of Law at Singapore Management University wrote several years ago, it is “Time again to review abortion laws”. She said in that article:
Legislation should be properly justified in a democracy. If the reasons to back a law are no longer valid, or the social context has changed, a review of the law is in order to see if new reasons support the law as it stands, or if the law should be amended. I argue that our abortion laws should be thoroughly reviewed in Parliament.
The reasons for liberalisation decades ago had included the population explosion, which is irrelevant today. Then there was the eugenic argument, cited in 1969, to rebut groups that had argued for the sanctity of the unborn: They were told to witness for themselves the care of “mental defectives” at Woodbridge Hospital. The then-Minister of Health said “it (was) an acknowledged social evil to countenance the breeding of defectives in society”.
Another justification for legalising abortion in the past was the harm that might result from backstreet abortions, to which pregnant women would resort if no legal means of abortion were available.
Today, this fear is unfounded. In our social context today, which is vastly different, stricter abortion laws are more likely to lead people to be circumspect about unprotected sex, than to drive them to backstreet abortionists.
She concluded his piece with these words:
In Singapore as we confront the high ratio of the number of abortions to the number of live births, we must admit that it says something about a cavalier attitude towards the worth of the unborn — an attitude that continues to be facilitated by current laws.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon expressed in his speech on euthanasia, delivered at the Singapore Medical Association Annual Lecture, that “(l)aw is the expression of society’s choices about the policy choices we will live by”.
Moving forward, is this what we are comfortable with as a nation?
When I was in Singapore in several visits recently I had the opportunity to speak to some concerned Singaporeans about these matters. It seems that there is a quite small pro-life movement there, made up of various individuals and organisations.
As is often the case, many of these are Catholic groups, such as Prolife Singapore (prolife.sg/site/); Family Life Society (www.familylife.sg/) and Heartbeats for Life (prolife.caritashost.sg/site/). Some non-Catholic prolife groups and pregnancy action centres include: DaySpring New Life Centre (www.dayspring.org.sg/); aLife (www.alife.org.sg/); and the Pregnancy Crisis Service (pregnancycrisis.sg/).
I am back in Singapore just now so tonight I will be speaking to a group of such people. I will also be launching my new book, The Challenge of Abortion, at the meeting. Already a fair amount of interest has been expressed in the gathering, and I pray it will be of help in the struggle for life here in Singapore.
Each country must approach the abortion issue in a way that is specific to their circumstances, culture and timeline. In Singapore it is my hope that if it does not already exist, a coordinated, unified and active national organisation might emerge, or at least a loose coalition of groups working together to address this issue might develop.
Perhaps now is the time for those concerned about life in Singapore to look at new ways to both work together and network, as well as to more vocally and strategically help the nation and its political leaders to revisit this issue, thinking through the implications of so many killed unborn babies.
Let’s work and pray toward that end. Let me conclude with a few relevant quotes here. The words of Darius Lee, a young Singaporean author and pro-life advocate as found in a letter to The Straits Times in late 2014 are worth sharing:
It is said that the true measure of any society is found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. To build a truly progressive and compassionate society, we should value and protect human life at all stages of development, including and especially the weakest members of the human family – the unborn children.
And consider the words of another active prolifer in Singapore, Edmund Leong Meng Tsi, also found in the ST that month:
As a society, we need to be compassionate, logical and just. We should not discriminate against unborn babies, but uphold the fundamental human right to life, from conception to natural death, regardless of the capability of medical science to support nascent life.
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.