Are certain medical questions still legal taboos in Malaysia?


Did you know that Malaysia is one of the few Muslim-majority countries in the world where it is legal to get an abortion? Yes, the Malaysian Penal Code Section 312, amended in 1989 permits the termination of a pregnancy if the abortion is threatening a woman’s life and in order to preserve her physical and mental health. Despite this, many Malaysia women and those with birthing bodies still face a multitude of barriers that prevent them from terminating an unwanted pregnancy.

Why? This is because of the lack of clear interpretation and understanding of the law within our society. This results in women poor accessibility to abortion information and services in Malaysia. In fact, many health care providers are unaware of the legalities of abortion in Malaysia and are still influenced by their personal/religion beliefs with regard to provision of abortion services. To add to that, accessibility to safer abortion techniques and medication is also an issue.

This article aims to provide more educational minutes within the scope of the law about abortion to ensure Malaysian women are aware of their reproductive rights and also to increase their reproductive knowledge related to abortion.

What is Section 312 of the Penal Code?

Though generally, all kinds of voluntary abortions are illegal in Malaysia but there are certain circumstances where it is legal. In essence, section 312 states that abortion is permitted if a registered medical practitioner believe that the pregnancy would risk the life, physical and mental health of the woman. According to the law, only a registered medical practitioner has the power to determine “in good faith” whether the pregnant woman’s life or health is at risk if she continues with the pregnancy.

Now, What Is The Flaw In Section 312?

Malaysia’s stance on abortion is relatively progressive but inadequate to pull abortion out from the shadow of social stigma. Is it fair to leave it to the hands of a medical practitioner to determine whether or not a woman can bear a child? In certain instances, health professionals can refuse to terminate a pregnancy due to their personal values or religious beliefs, even if a pregnancy is the result of an extreme case such as rape or incest.

This often leads to women being frequently transferred across numerous hospitals in the search for a doctor who is willing to perform an abortion. Consequently, a sizable proportion of women seek help from dangerous and exploitative back-alley practitioners who are like their last resort. The attitude of abortion should only be done to save the mother’s life is very deep-rooted in our system and the judgmental attitude towards unplanned pregnancy among young, unmarried women is huge.

Where Can a Legal Abortion Take Place?

Accessibility to legal abortion is another issue faced by many women. In fact, the difference between access to abortion in rural and urban areas also plays a major role in preventing women from getting the help that they need when faced with an unwanted pregnancy.

Many general practitioners (GPs) lack the appropriate equipment to confirm the gestation period of pregnancy and to perform an abortion. Plus, our healthcare system do not have any fund banks that are being channeled towards providing abortions to women who need them, resulting in patients being transferred to private clinics where the price for the procedure can skyrocket beyond what many people can afford.

Defining Abortion and when does it take place?

Though the law does not explain ‘when’ nor at what stage of pregnancy can a medical practitioner perform a legal abortion, according to the Guideline on Termination of Pregnancy (TOP) published by the Ministry of Health Malaysia in 2012:

“Abortion is defined as the expulsion or removal of an embryo or fetus from the uterus at a stage of pregnancy when it is incapable of independent survival (500gms or 22 weeks gestation)…”

Questions would arise in such instances: what if a doctor believes that a mother’s life is in danger if she continues with the pregnancy but she is 24 weeks pregnant? The law is silent on this, and hence underlining such questions as tied not only to the law and rules, but also to social and cultural outlooks.

What About Pregnancies Formed As a Product of Rape? 

According to Section 315 of the Penal Code, “an act done with intent to prevent a child being born alive or to cause it to die after birth” is an offence. This is unless it is for the purpose of saving the life of the mother. So, abortion is technically still prohibited in Malaysia even if the pregnancy was a product of rape. In brief, a woman in Malaysia cannot or does not have the privilege of choice to have an abortion on any other special grounds unless the mother’s life is in danger.

So, Where Are We Heading in Terms of Legal Abortion Rights?

There are too many unanswered questions and gaps left in regards to abortion rights in Malaysia. As a result, this has led to more illegal and unsafe abortions. Many still fear the stigma of being abortion providers, thus, many doctors and clinics provide abortions ‘on the quiet’. Plus, Malaysia’s poor sex education, stigma towards safe sex discussions, cold treatment of women with unwanted pregnancies, and lack of support for children with single mothers compounds matters.

Now, How Can We Make a Difference?

Educate our children and make them aware of their reproductive rights. The government has to review its responsibility in providing accessible abortion services within the scope of the law. We cannot ignore sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) education and comprehensive sex education that in Malaysia is always related to morality and abstinence.

It is difficult to prevent young people from having sex but it is possible to educate them to minimize unwanted pregnancies.

Sex education is not about teaching people how to have sex. Instead, it is to protect themselves and empower them to make decisions for their own well-being throughout their life.

The issue of abortion still remains a controversial topic as it involves many ethical dilemmas and it could possibly be that in the end, what matters most is whether the law allows it or not.


Photo: Astro Awani


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