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East Timor: Thoughts on Abortion A Few Days Before Law Approval

There has been a dramatic debate in East Timor over recent weeks about the provisions of the new draft penal code pertaining to abortion. The draft article 144 of the penal code deals with “interruption of pregnancy”. Draft article 142 deals with “non-punishable interruption of pregnancy”. By the proposed article 144, abortion is crime and those who perform abortion will be punished with imprisonment terms ranging from 2 and 8 years.

This excerpt was taken from the East Timor Law and Justice Bulletin (ETJL), in a post named “What happens when abortion is illegal”. At the beginning of June, a new Penal Code will take effect in East Timor, defending the criminalization of abortion, except in underage cases or when the mother's health is in jeopardy. Abortions derived from incest and rape cases will be punished.

Abortion in East Timor is not a new debate and neither is its illegal practice through the so called traditional medicines, ETLJ continues:

It is not a long search to find both incest and the death of women through incompetent abortion agents in recent East Timorese history. In November 2008, the Judicial System Monitoring Program reported on a case in the Oecusse District Court that arose from the death of a woman who was administered a traditional abortifacient.

The prosecutor's indictment in that case stated that in March 2007 in Betasi, Taiboko the first defendant entrusted some traditional medicine to the second defendant to be given to the victim J and to be taken in accordance with instructions set out by the first defendant. The aim of the two defendants was to enable the victim to abort her four month old fetus. The defendants instructed the victim to take the medicine regularly for three weeks. After several days the victim aborted the foetus and died.

Girls Oecussi

Photo taken in Oecussi by Flickr user NeilsPhotography shared under a Creative Commons License

At the beginning of 2009, East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) posted about Women in Timor ‘having unsafe abortions’ and in the same month UNICEF reported that 1 in 35 East Timorese women die in childbirth.

Three months later, an Australian woman working for the Timorese Government’s Gender Equality Secretariat in a post called Action not words – Women’s Peace Conference, comments on the event [en, pt, te] that took place in early March this year (the conference speeches can be found here). According to her, abortion was under debate at the conference with a strong impact on women who were discussing gender issues in East Timor:

There was a noticeable amount of white malae (foreigner) women, but overwhelmingly the women were brown. This conference was for them. And talking about using contraception in Timor, which is 90% Catholic – talking about spacing your family and perhaps having 5 kids instead of 8 or 10 – talking more generally, in public, that women need to have a public voice – this was very controversial and generated a huge buzz of voices in the room.

(…) I can see that of course this event was more than just words for hundreds of people. I was told that the next day at the event, abortion was discussed. This is not something that people talk about openly here! They have criminalized it and put in place hospital policies that try to prevent abortions at all costs. Yet it came up. This is not just a discussion; this is women feeling safe enough to get together and talk about issues for all of society. They will go home energized and talk about what they heard and saw in Dili and let me tell you, there are some driven people in this country and they aren’t all foreigners. They have women’s NGOs galore here, it’s the only way to get their voices heard most of the time. The ideas shared here are going to result in new ways and programs. Someone might even go home and leave next time her husband beats her; or they might say ‘Hey, let’s wait a little longer before we have that 7th kid’.
I can only hope.

The “huge buzz of voices” when talking about these issues may be related to the fact that Timorese culture tends to follow the Catholic Church's moral conscience, which played an important role in the country’s self-determination during Indonesian times. Its opinion on abortion is nevertheless quite controversial.

Photo shot outside a church by Flickr user NeilsPhotography shared under a Creative Commons License

Photo shot outside a church by Flickr user NeilsPhotography shared under a Creative Commons License

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, the Portuguese blog Timor Lorosae Nação published a short post [pt], which acted as a powerful trigger for a long discussion about abortion issues:

O novo Código Penal criminaliza o aborto com uma pena que pode chegar aos oito anos de cadeia. Os crimes sexuais têm vindo a aumentar no território. Será que há repercussões?

The new Penal Code condemns abortion with a penalty that can reach eight years of prison. Sexual crimes have increased in the area. Are there repercussions?

There were more than 60 comments on this post, covering topics ranging from contraception to free will and freedom of choice, suicide and euthanasia, religion, family planning, rape, the world economy and distribution of wealth, justice, etc. However a comment [pt] reduced the extent of issues to two types of vision: the woman’s and the child’s, playing with the meaning of the Portuguese word for foetus (feto) and its homonym in Tetum meaning “woman”.

A questão do aborto é uma questão complicada e muito sensível que tem sido e será sempre foco de grandes debates entre várias partes com diferenças de opinião relativamente ao valor da vida humana.

Se ambos os ‘fetos’ (feto bebe em estado de desenvolvimento no útero e feto ‘mulher’ na língua Tétum) pudessem falar o que diriam por sua vez cada um deles?

‘Feto’ mulher: Filho/a, não te quero, vou-te abortar.
Feto (bebe): …?

The issue of abortion is a very sensitive and complex one that has been and will always be a major focus of discussions between various parties with differing views on the value of human life.

If both ‘fetos’ (baby foetus in a state of development in the uterus and ‘feto’ woman in the Tetum language) could speak what would each of them say in their turn?

‘Feto’ woman: Child, I do not want you, I will abort you.
Foetus (baby): …?

Another interesting comment [pt] related to the particularities of the Tetum language states:

Em Tetum a gravidez diz-se “isin rua” (literalmente traduzido significa “dois corpos”) o corpo da mae e o corpo do feto.
O feto, apesar de estar a desenvolver-se dentro do corpo da mae, e’ um corpo, uma vida distinta numa relacao de simbiose com o corpo da mae para se poder desenvolver.

Um aborto por isso nao equivale a remocao de uma parte do corpo da mae como se de um simples caso de amputacao se tratasse.
Seria a remocao e a cessacao forcada de uma vida humana distinta, fragil e indefesa numa relacao simbiotica com o corpo da mae.

Por isso nao e’ uma simples questao de dizer “e’ o meu corpo e eu posso fazer o que quiser com o meu corpo” porque na realidade o aborto representa a imposicao do desejo de um corpo sobre o um outro.

The Tetum word for pregnancy is “isin rua” (literally translated means “two bodies”) – mother’s body and foetus body.
Although the foetus is developing within the mother’s body, it is a body in itself – a different life in a relationship of symbiosis with the body of the mother in order to be developed.

Therefore, an abortion is not the removal of part of the mother’s body like a simple matter of amputation.
It would be the removal and termination pursuant to a separate human life, fragile and defenceless in a symbiotic relationship with the body of the mother.

It is not a simple matter of saying “it is my body and I can do whatever I want with my body” because in reality abortion is the imposition of the desire of a body on another.

Even though the most part of the comments were made by expats or non-Timorese netcitizens, the voice of a Timorese woman was raised [pt] among the others’:

Sou Timorense! Sou Mulher! Sou católica e sou CONTRA o aborto.
Contudo, acredito que em certos casos, a vontade da mulher deveria ser respeitada, não a vontade da igreja ou de padrecos que pensam que reinam Timor.
Será certo mandar uma mulher ir para a cadeia porque fez um aborto, quando esta foi VIOLADA, por um BANDIDO? Não! Pensem como se fosse alguém que vos seja querido, uma filha, uma irmã, mãe etc… ai talvez já não vomitem as palavras em favor desta VERGONHOSA lei! (…)

I am Timorese! I am a Woman! I am Catholic and I am AGAINST abortion.
However, I believe that in some cases, the willingness of women should be respected, not the will of the church or priests who think they reign in Timor.
Is it correct to make a woman go to jail because she had an abortion, after being RAPED by SCUM? No! Think as if it was someone dear to you, a daughter, a sister, a mother etc … there may no longer vomit words in favour of this SHAMEFUL law! [...]
Photo by Flickr user Graham Crumb shared under a Creative Commons License

Photo by Flickr user Graham Crumb shared under a Creative Commons License

Children, prostitution and abortion

Often related with the abortion debate, prostitution occurring in East Timor is apparently being ignored by the mainstream media. Back in 2005, Kirsty Gusmão, the wife of the then President Xanana Gusmão, stated in the Diario Tempo journal that “should the Timor-Leste government not take measures soon the current levels of prostitution will increase. Sooner or later, Dili will be full of prostitutes.”

East Timor Law Journal published on Morality, Religion and the Law – Abortion and Prostitution in East Timor that:

The criminalisation of abortion and prostitution have been a factor in the infliction of great harm and suffering upon women and results in social dislocation, exposure to grave health and safety issues such as HIV/AIDS, drug use, and violence as well as life-threatening underground abortion clinics.

Three years later, Loro Horta posts at Open Democracy – The curse of commodities – linking “oil-fuelled growth with child prostitution in Timor-Leste”:

Near schools men wait in their cars for young girls to approach them. A young school girl relates her story, “we approach them and tell them we need a new pair of shoes to go to a party. We go with them and then do it and get our shoes”. Girls are reported to have sold their bodies for as little as $5. In the countryside local journalists have reported various cases of girls as young as 10 prostituting themselves for $1.

The blogosphere regrets [pt] that prostitution has now evolved to lower ages and is occurring in the country:

Mas que estupidez. E qual e a pena de prisão dos que andam a aliciar as menores para a prostituição? Devido a pobreza a muitas jovens que se vendem por um telemóvel e muitos dos graúdos com poder de gastar andam nisso. Se os jornalistas investigarem irão apanhar muito peixe na rede. É só verem a historia das trocas de telefonemas para apanharem e trazerem a luz esses marmanchos que vão bater o peito na missa todos os domingos e comungam e ca fora no dia a dia abusam das menores. (…)

How stupid. And what’s the imprisonment penalty for those who entice the underage to prostitution? Due to poverty many young people are selling themselves for a mobile phone and many adults with the power to spend are buying. If journalists start investigating they will catch many fish in the net. Just look at the history of phone calls to catch and bring to light those scum who are beating their chests in Mass every Sunday and outside on a daily basis abuse minors. (…)
Photo by Flickr user NeilsPhotography shared under a Creative Commons License

Photo by Flickr user NeilsPhotography shared under a Creative Commons License

The online debate eventually evolved to poetry trading on abortion issues (“Não soube do Mundo“  [pt] / “Didn't know about the world” and unnamed [sp]). Ze da Labia wrote a poem named “Quero ser criança em Timor” [pt] (“I want to be a child in Timor”) as a response to a comment asking for it:

Quero ser criança em Timor
Quero ser feliz e sentir-me amada
Quero beber leite
Para ter ossos fortes
Quero ter uma cama para dormir
Onde haja uma almofada
Para poder sonhar

Quero ser criança em Timor
Quero ter um par de sapatos
Para que os meus pés
Cresçam saudáveis e limpos
Para poder andar para a escola
Sem ter que coxear

Quero ser criança em Timor
E ter roupa para não andar nu
Quero cobrir o corpo
Deste calor ardente
Que me estorrica a pele

Quero ser criança em Timor, ter bicicleta
Poder comprar uma trotinete
Ir de Dili a Bazartete
Não levar porrada de cacetete
Comer bem no restaurante da Odete
Arroz, sopa ou mesmo omolete
Passear de camionete
Mas dispenso a espingarda sete sete

Mas a minha mãe ja tem onze
Vou ficar no banco de suplentes
Levar agua aos que tem sede
Ver passar a banda e nao tocar
Ver saltar a bola e nao chutar
Partir os ossos so de esperar
Porque sem calcio, custa a sarar
E la tenho que aturar
Os graudos que nao sabem mandar

I want to be a child in Timor
I want to be happy and feel loved
I want to drink milk
To have strong bones
I want to have a bed to sleep
Where there is a cushion
So that I can dream

I want to be a child in Timor
I want to have a pair of shoes
So that my feet
Grow healthy and clean
In order to walk to school
Without having to limp

I want to be a child in Timor
And have clothes not to go naked
I want to cover my body
From this burning heat
That burns my skin

I want to be a child in Timor, have a bike
Be able to buy a power scooter
Go from Dili to Bazartete
Not to be beaten with a stick
Eating well at Odete
Rice, soup or even omolete
Go for a walk on a truck
But off for rifle seven seven

But my mom already has eleven
I will sit and wait
I’ll bring water to the one’s who are thirsty
Go see the band and not play
See the ball jump and not kick
Break the bones only to wait
Because without calcium, it costs to heal
And so I must take
The big ones who can’t rule

  • http:/www.etan.org John

    For the record, there is no East Timor Asian Network. ETAN is the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network.

  • DRF

    I notice that you use American spelling. It would make sense for you to use American punctuation as well. Seeing quotation marks misused is a distraction from your message.

  • http://easttimorlegal.blogspot.com Voice of East Timor

    Nice work, Sarah. Enjoyed reading this post. Best regards,

    East Timor Law and Justice Bulletin

  • sister4obama

    Killing innocent humans in an attempt to fix the faults of society is sheer foolishness. Yes there are many injustices and the world is unfair, but simply adding one more will not make the rest go away.

  • http://ration-shed-4-tier-foodbank.blogspot.com Jim Bailey

    Thanks – Up on the Equal Parenting @ Ration Shed BLOG – Onward – Jim

  • http://www.thediliinsider.blogspot.com The Dili Insider

    Ida ne’e mak diak liu.

  • http://www.hrtsideeffects.com Maggie Tuttle

    MEETINGS, TALKINGS AND MORE TALKINGS AND SO IT GOES ON, ITS ALL A MERRY GO ROUND, AND KIDS CONTINUE TO DIE. I WILL SAY AGAIN ITS THE WOMEN THEM SELFS HAVE TO GET EDUCATED AGAINST ALL THIS RELIGION AND POLITICS AND TALKS, STOP GIVING BIRTH TO KIDS WHO WILL BE ABUSED, KILLED, SOLD. WHEN WOMEN STOP TO THINK WHAT THEY ARE GIVING BIRTH TO, AND FOR WHY, THEN MAYBE FOR SOME KIDS BORN THEY WILL HAVE A CHANCE OF A LIFE.
    MAGGIE TUTTLE.

  • Helen

    One of the best articles I’ve read on abortion in Timor-Leste as it graphically illustrates the power differential between men and women over this matter. Shows that abortions cannot be reduced by using the sledge-hammer of the law as it hits the poweless most. If the Catholic Church wants to reduce the number of abortions they must begin by teaching their members to make less of a God of money, and to give more respect to young women.

  • http://timornewsnetwork.blogspot.com/m TimorNewsNetwork

    Dear Sara,

    TimorNewsNetwork posted your article on “East Timor: Thoughts on Abortion A Few Days Before Law Approval.” Hope you don’t mind.

    Loron diak

  • PRI: People First

    Interesting how one-sided this story is. the more interesting and thought provoking post on this is here: http://easttimorlegal.blogspot.com/2009/03/catholic-church-and-abortion-in-timor.html

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