Sep 11, 2017

Decriminalize Abortion in Sri Lanka: Statement by human rights defenders and women's groups

As a collective of organizations and individuals who work on women’s human rights in Sri Lanka, we add our voices to the prevailing debate in public fora around legislation governing abortion. Recent announcements of the passage of a bill to legalize abortion under two circumstances - ‘when the mother carries a foetus with lethal congenital malformation and when a woman becomes a rape victim’1 were welcomed by many.We take the position this law is only a small and yet inadequate measure to ensure women are able to fully enjoy their human rights. Women’s rights, human rights defenders, lawyers and medical professionals have been campaigning for the complete decriminalization of abortion as a critical women’s rights issue in Sri Lanka for decades. We are now deeply concerned over the opposition to the passage of the proposed bill.

Currently, abortion is criminalized in Sri Lanka completely, unless it can be proven that it is necessary to save the life of the woman.2 This means women cannot access legal and safe abortions.

Around 700 abortions are performed daily in Sri Lanka3, which also accounts for the second leading cause of maternal deaths in 2006, 2008 and 20104. Criminalization of abortion has only driven the practice underground, with women resorting to illegal and often unsafe abortions5. The Country Profile on Universal Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health: Sri Lanka (2015)6 states, ‘Maternal death due to septic abortion is the third highest cause for maternal death, at 13% (FHB, 2012).’ It also states, ‘However, considering, its legal status does not prevent women from seeking abortions, but does prevent women from seeking immediate medical assistance when complications occur... patients are brought in when the conditions are severe and are also at risk of being charged for procuring illegal abortions.’’

The CEDAW Committee also expressed concern that in Sri Lanka, abortion is still a punishable offence under the law, unless the purpose is to save the life of the mother, and expressed regrets that about 10 per cent of maternal mortality is reported as the direct result of clandestine abortion. In its Concluding Observations on the Eighth Periodic Report, the Committee reiterated its recommendation to the State to decriminalize abortion .
The continued criminalization of abortion is a crisis for women’s rights, women’s health and wellbeing in Sri Lanka; it is as a serious obstacle to our ability to make empowered and autonomous decisions as equal citizens. To choose the termination of an unwanted pregnancy, under any circumstances, is a fundamental human right.

We are concerned about the ‘religious’ and moralistic framework given to this debate by some opponents of decriminalization8. We assert that this is not a moral or religious matter, it is a matter of women’s human rights, dignity and choice. A response to this debate must be a response to women primarily, regardless of class, caste and circumstance. This call to legalize abortion is not a moral one - it is a position which centers the decision-making power of women, and sees the need to reform outdated, colonial legislation, so that women’s rights and autonomy can be enjoyed in full.

We will continue to campaign and work towards decriminalization of abortion unconditionally. At this juncture we support the cabinet’s decision to ease the existing laws criminalizing abortion and we ask the state not to be swayed in this decision.

1. We urge the government to promote, protect and fulfill all the rights of all women, and to fulfill its responsibility towards its citizens. Significant decisions such as this, with regards to citizens’ rights should not be influenced by religious or other institutions, in a secular and democratic state such as ours.

2. We urge the government strongly, to support the proposed amendments to existing abortion legislation and to continue to work with public health officials, women’s rights advocates, medical professions, and psychological-support experts to decriminalize abortion without limitation, and provide women the right and access to safe and legal abortion services.

3. We strongly urge the government to acknowledge every woman’s right to autonomously make decisions with regards to her own body, health and wellbeing -- physiological and emotional - unconditionally.


1. Dabindu Collective

2. Hashtag Generation

3. Mannar Women's Development Federation

4. Suriya Women's Development Centre

5. Vallamai

6. Women and Media Collective

7. Women’s Education and Research Center (WERC)

8. Women in Need

9. Women's Action Network

10. Youth Advocacy Network, Sri Lanka

11. Anusha Alagarajah

12. Ermiza Tegal

13. Gameela Samarasinghe

14. Harini Amarasuriya, Open University of Sri Lanka

15. Hemalatha M.

16. Iromi Perera, Resercher

17. Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, Goodwill Ambassador for Women's Rights, Ministry of Women's Affairs

18. Jensila Majeed

19. Kamani Jinadasa

20. Kumudini Samuel, Women and Media Collective

21. Mahaluxmy Kurushanthan

22. Mythili B

23. Niventhini S.

24. Priya Mohan

25. Prof. Kumari Jayewardena

26. Radhika Guneratne

27. Rajani Rajeswary

28. Riyadh R.

29. Sachni Perera, Resurj

30. Sharmini V.

31. Sherine Xavier, The Social Architects.

32. Shermal Wijewardene

33. Shreen Saroor

34. Subha Wijesiriwardene, Women and Media Collective

35. Sumika Perera, Women's Resource Centre36. Tehani Ariyaratne

37. Tharshan S.

38. Vagisha Gunasekara, American institute for Lankan Studies.

39. Zainab Ibrahim, Researcher

Foot Notes:


2. Sri Lanka Penal Code - Sections 303 - 307

3. Abeykoon A.T.P.L, Estimates of abortion rates in Sri Lanka using Bongaarets Model of Proximate Determinants of Fertility: 4-5.Abeykoon A.T.P.L, Estimates of abortion rates in Sri Lanka using Bongaarets Model of Proximate Determinants of Fertility: 4-5.

4.Family Health Bureau. National Maternal Mortality Reviews – 2011