Morality, Tradition, Religion: The Persistent Stigmatization of Abortion
This article is part of the 39th issue of LEAP — Voices of Youth e-letter. Subscribe now.
“Due to financial reasons, I decided to have an abortion at the time. While I was worried about the social stigma, the abortion really began with the continuous nightmares after the procedure…”
“I was just a student then and, for me, it was very difficult. I felt uneasy in my conscience and pressure from moral expectations, so I didn’t dare to talk about it with anyone.”
“My first pregnancy happened when I was 21…Thankfully, I hadn’t given birth then; otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to afford the child. I certainly wasn’t mature enough then either.”
Story after story of real lives affected by abortion can be found on the website of Taiwan Women’s Link, a women’s advocacy group. Although the stories are short and varied, the women who have bared their hearts say that, despite the enormous pressure they went through, they do not regret their original decision to have an abortion due to their former financial, psychological, or other circumstances.
In Taiwan, abortion continues to be listed in the Criminal Code as an offense. Although related prosecutions are few and far between and public acceptance of abortion has been growing slowly, many women are still met with pressure and condemnation.
Exactly where does the stigma of abortion in Taiwanese society come from? What are the arguments so vehemently held by those who support or oppose abortion?
The Stigma of Abortion in Taiwan
Media reports surrounding the issue of abortion are often dominated by the conflicting arguments between religious organizations and women’s rights groups. From the “pro-life” perspective, which equates abortion with murder, women who want to induce abortions through pills or surgery only choose to do so out of selfishness and a disregard for the life of the fetus.
“As a matter of fact, the ‘spirit babies’ found in traditional beliefs refers to what happens after a pregnancy is aborted–the child will return to look for its mother,” Chen Shu-fang, Secretary-General of Taiwan Women’s Link, points out. The social stigmatization of abortion can be observed from two angles: first, folk beliefs spread through rumors and legends have a terrifying effect on the general populace; second, social commentary often exerts moral pressure upon women, using guilt to figuratively shackle women who want to have an abortion or have already had one.
Concurrently, women who are choosing to terminate their pregnancies are frequently met with social condemnation. For example, if they are unmarried, then these women are accused of promiscuity and an inability to take care of themselves. “But, such censure does not usually extend to men,” Chen Shu-fang notes.
Furthermore, beyond the realm of traditional religious beliefs and moral codes, the rhetoric employed by those opposing women’s decision to abort often display negative impressions of women as being overly emotional or lacking foresight.
“Opposition groups during the 2018 referendum proposed to lengthen the ‘waiting period’ and ‘consultation period,’ etc., for women before their abortion procedure, which sounded impartial but was actually a slogan to raise the threshold for legal abortions.” Chen Shu-fang believes that, beyond the matter of abortion, common stereotypes in society about women should also be evaluated.
Female Bodily Autonomy vs. Fetal Right to Life
In examining the long-held arguments from both sides of the abortion issue, it is clear that opposition groups formulate their critique of women’s reproductive rights from the perspective of a bystander, and not of those directly impacted.
For example, the “Civil Alliance to Respect Life,” which emerged in the 1990s through a network of various religious organizations, has argued that the abortion pill RU486 is extremely dangerous and that the fetus with its “human dignity and right to life” should be protected. Therefore, six more days should be added to the consultation period to allow for women to seek help.
The 2018 referendum saw the reemergence of a similar organization, Shofar Conversion Community Alliance, which argued that a fetus should not be denied the right to live once it has a heartbeat, and that the law should shorten the time limit from 24 weeks to 8 weeks in pregnancy before abortion is banned.
However, for supporters of abortion rights, a woman’s bodily autonomy should be the main focus in this debate; if a woman’s individual will is not respected, then any discussion would only ever be one-sided. “Women are not vessels for reproduction. Every woman has the right to decide with whom and at what time to give birth to and raise the next generation,” Lin Lu-hong, Executive Director of Taiwan Women’s Link, once said in 2019.
Chen Shu-fang also states that children and women should not be leveled against each other. Women should be allowed to consider their own economic conditions, relationships with their partner, labor conditions and environment, access to social welfare support, etc., because the values of life for women and children are not necessarily different.
Moreover, the decision to have an abortion is not an easy one for women. It is vital to approach the analysis of abortion rights with ”women at the center.” Chen adds, “In terms of abortion’s legality, any reform should begin with women. As it stands, even the Genetic Health Law was based on the government’s prerogative to control the population at that time.
Commencing Dialogues and Dismantling Stereotypes
“Spirit babies,” “heartbeat bill,” “female irrationality””…even with the constant change of time and space, there remains a stigma to abortion in every corner of society. In what direction should the government, civil groups, and the general public strive toward?
“The first step of de-stigmatization is to get everyone talking.” Chen Shu-fang expresses that besides continuing to clarify to the general public that abortion is a medical option instead of a crime, the first course of action that civil groups can take is to to spark conversations about abortion.
Chen Shufang indicates that public acceptance of abortion seems higher than ever, but in reality, the focus of discussions have stayed primarily on the potential financial difficulty of childrearing. Other substantial concerns, such as women’s reproductive autonomy, are still mostly ignored in comparison.
In addition, Chen Shu-fang also said that opponents of abortion often use a fully formed fetus as the model to convey to the public that abortion is a cruel procedure. The fact is that, from a medical standpoint, the fetus is not only unformed but also cannot survive outside the mother’s body at the time of its termination (which implies that abortion is NOT murdering); communicating accurate information from a medical point of view will be an ongoing task.
Chen Shu-fang points out that the draft amendment proposed this year in April to the Genetic Health Law by the Health Promotion Administration of the Ministry of Health and Welfare should be encouraged, as the government often shied away from such issues in the past. Also, the draft calls for a name change from “Genetic Health Law” to “Reproductive Health Law” to dispel the discriminatory connotations of the original wording and moves to repeal the requirement of spousal consent for married women to have an abortion. All of these amendments would be major progress.
Nevertheless, widely controversial subjects such as abortion will probably be avoided by candidates campaigning for the upcoming year-end elections for county and city leadership and councils. Chen Shu-fang also mentions that it is not easy to stimulate conversation about women’s issues to begin with. Hence, we must slowly accumulate the public’s energy to engage in such discussions.
Also in This Issue:
Until today, abortion is still a crime in Taiwan, and many women are thus in a dilemma of having a baby she never wants or being a criminal.
Author : Evelyn Yang
Freelance writer / Graduate student in Journalism