Feminism, Catholicism, and Abortion: What Connects Them?

We spoke to the Feminist Catholic Network (FCN) to understand the ethics of consent, and abortion from a religious perspective. In addition to their general statement (parts of which are reproduced below), we have also included a series of questions and answers we had with one of the Network members.

This discusses life vs potential life, consent, mercy, and autonomy.  The Network notes that there have been over a hundred thousand illegal abortions in the late nineties, based on estimates conducted during that time period.

“A study undertaken in the late 1990s estimated that 125,000 to 175,000 induced abortions, mostly illegal are performed annually in Sri Lanka. A subsequent study estimated a much higher figure of 658 induced abortions per day, giving an abortion ratio of 741 per 1000 live births. The latest study estimates that in 2007, 8.7 abortions took place per 100 women4. In the year 2013, the percentage contribution from abortion to maternal mortality was around 10%, making it the third most common cause of maternal death. Furthermore, the Police Department showed that in 2015, 80% of all rape victims were girls under the age of 16.

In light of this information and as Catholics driven by love and empathy for those in difficult situations, we object to any barrier that would stop women from making a conscientious choice of their own free will to seek safe, legal medical care.

We also emphasize that the ‘official’ position put forward by a few clergymen of the Catholic hierarchy makes a false representation of the opinion of ordinary Catholics. We strongly object to the campaign they have led against this Bill and find its position antithetical to the call for radical justice and mercy that is found in the Gospels. Instead, we follow Catholic teaching and theology in supporting this Bill for the following reasons.

We support the social conscience of decriminalizing abortion. As Article 6 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, Catholics “not only may but must follow the dictates of conscience rather than the teachings of the Church.” Catholics are obliged to know and thoughtfully consider Catholic teaching, but in the end, a well-formed conscience reigns.

We support the autonomy of women to make conscience-based decisions. We find that the most powerful backing for the autonomy of women itself comes from the many women detailed throughout Scripture, not least Mother Mary. As O’Neill, amongst others, note, “Mary’s consent to carrying, birthing and raising Jesus provides a powerful corrective to rape culture. Mary’s consent is the most important “yes” in salvation history because with that yes Mary bore the child of and participated in bringing to fulfilment God’s plan to redeem the world. God did not send the Holy Spirit to conceive Jesus without Mary’s consent; Mary’s full verbal consent was required and obtained before Jesus was conceived. God waited for consent; and it was not “implied” or “presumed” consent.” Mary’s fiat is a conscious and considered acceptance of what has been offered.

We maintain that life is precious. To this end, we support efforts to address the root causes of abortion-seeking, so we can create a world where every pregnancy is wanted. We support: frank and timely sex education; gender-sensitive, compassionate, non-judgmental support networks for people seeking guidance; psychosocial support in reproductive healthcare; and the Church’s support in addressing national concerns such as gender-based violence in its physical and psychological form.

We reinforce the Catholic principle of mercy. We are against the condemnation of any rape victim to being twice powerless to choose what happens to her body. We are against the psychological torture of women with non-viable pregnancies through denial of safe abortion access. We stand with Article 11 of the Sri Lankan constitution that guarantees that ‘No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’.”

Based on an email interview with YANSL, the FCN elaborated more on the moral conflicts surrounding abortions. While many of us agree about women’s autonomy and control over their bodies, we were told that the difficulty is because of how unusual the relationship between a fetus and pregnant woman is; it is literally unlike any other relationship out there.

Its unusualness makes it difficult because we are accustomed to settling particular moral disputes by appealing to general moral principles, a procedure that presupposes a substantial degree of similarity between the question we wish to answer and other questions we feel we have, at least tentatively, resolved.

Current legal position

  1. Abortion is illegal in Sri Lanka except to save the life of the mother.
  2. A limited amendment to permit it in the cases of rape, incest, serious deformities was proposed but this was opposed by religious leaders lead by the Catholic cardinal.  Not all Catholics agree with this position and we seek to petition the cardinal that the church should not oppose changes to the law.

The big questions:

There are two big questions:

  1. Is abortion morally wrong?
  2. Should it be illegal?

To understand the distinction, just consider this example. Driving on the wrong side of the road is illegal but not immoral. Adultery is immoral, but not illegal.

What are we (the FCN is) trying to do:

Abortion involves a conflict between two entities, the woman and the foetus.

How are we to balance the interests and rights of the woman seeking an abortion with those of the fetus who, while not a person and therefore not in possession of moral rights or interests, is nevertheless a living entity worthy of some moral consideration, and whose existence would end?

  1. Clear cases: women’s life is in danger, the moral consideration is in favour of the woman.
    1. What about cases where the well-being of the woman is seriously compromised or threatened? By pregnancy, birth, adoption (medical/psychological risks) even adoption is far from psychologically easy. What of her autonomy and liberty.

Meanwhile, what is life?
…and is abortion the taking of life?

It is undeniable that we don’t value all life equally, especially as animal and plant lives aren’t considered as important as human life. The view that human life is special isn’t a factual judgment: it’s a moral judgment.

What makes human life different from other forms of life?

When people talk about ‘human life’ they may mean a member of the biological human species – having the human genetic code.

But they may also mean something very different; namely, a being that possesses certain human characteristics in addition to the human genetic code – characteristics often suggested might be the ability to think, to imagine, and to communicate.

According to philosopher Mary Warren, the list of characteristics (not an argument) of human life are as follows: 

  1.  Consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;
  2.  Reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);
  3.  Self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of genetic or direct external control).
  4.  The capacity to communicate, messages of with an indefinite number of possible contents on indefinitely many possible topics.
  5.  The presence of self-concepts and self-awareness.

 Warren claims that: 

  any being who does not possess most of 1-5 is not a human being in the moral sense.

 the more like a person a being is, the stronger is the case for regarding it as having a right to life, and the stronger its right to life is.

   there is no stage of fetal development at which a fetus resembles a person enough to have a significant right to life. 

  a fetus’s potential for being a person does not provide a basis for the claim that it has a significant right to life.  Even if a potential person has some right to life, that right could not outweigh the right of a woman to obtain an abortion, since “the rights of any actual person invariably outweigh those of any potential person”

Identifying Life vs Potential life

Extend the status of personhood to human fetuses and infants. A moral status on the possession of potential rather than actual, full-fledged personhood. In short, we don’t treat what we perceive as potential life, the same way we would treat life itself. Two examples are as follows:

  1. We treat them differently uprooting a jack seed is not the same as curring down a full grown jack tree. Plunging an egg into boiling water not the same as putting a live chicken in boiling water.
  2. Can interests and possible rights of merely potential persons outweigh the rights of actual full-fledged persons? Future interests and rights v present interests and rights of actual persons? Fully-fledged persons, with their actual interests and rights, ought always to be accorded greater moral significance than merely potential persons and non-persons.

According to FCN member views, the early part of pregnancy what we have is only potential life, not life. The simplest test is viability – at what age will a premature baby survive?  In Britain this is 24 weeks – around 80% survive – but with significant risks (Sri Lanka penal code defines viability as 28 weeks) Sri Lanka College of Paediatricians says mortality about 50-100%.


We Hear You: Kicking Off The Project


Sample 01-01.jpgEarlier this year, the Youth Advocacy Network secured a grant from the British Council under the Promoting ‘Voices & Choices’ for Women and Girls in Sri Lanka initiative to provide life skills education through tools and interfaces for girls at Ceylon School for the Deaf in Ratmalana.

Having received the green-light for the project in March, we initially focused on identifying the specific needs of the teachers and students in the school in order to find the relevant tools to bridge the communication gap. Through our interventions we expect that the students will receive a better understanding of their personal hygiene, equality, respect and human rights, as well as help them express themselves better.

As we’ve mentioned before, we hope that this initiative will help empower girls with hearing disabilities to make informed choices about their bodies, and instill a sense of self-confidence in them. We also want to help create a safe platform for the girls to have conversations about these topics, while sensitizing and enhancing the capabilities of their teachers and instructors.

WhatsApp Image 2018-07-06 at 6.37.45 PMJust last week, we completed the introductory sessions to the staff, and had focus group discussions with them.

WhatsApp Image 2018-07-06 at 6.35.43 PM

Linked to empowering women and girls, the expected outcome of this project is to:

  • Enhance knowledge and skills of young girls (50 adolescent girls) with hearing disabilities on Personal Hygiene, Relationships and Respect, Equality and Human Rights.
  • Increase sense of self-confidence in girls with hearing disabilities to make informed choices over their bodies, health and lives.
  • Creating a safe platform for girls with hearing disabilities to have a dialogue about their health and rights using sign language.
  • Develope a systematized hub containing tools, interfaces and materials on above topics made accessible using sign language for young girls with hearing disabilities.
  • Develop sensitivity and capacities of teachers and health instructors working in Ratmalana deaf school built on the above topics

Further details regarding the sign language glossary can be found here:


and here:


We Stand Together: In Solidarity With Women Everywhere.

A statement by the Solidarity Alliance for the Right to Safe Abortion, a Global South alliance of six civil society organisations committed to realising the right to safe abortion for all women. 

On 25 May 2018, Irish voters cast their vote in a referendum to decide on whether or not to repeal the Eighth Amendment (Article 40.3.3) of the Irish constitution, which makes abortion illegal by giving equal rights to the unborn.[i] Since 1983 when this amendment was voted in, it has created a highly restrictive environment for safe abortion in Ireland. It has resulted in many women seeking abortions resorting to alternative and costly means.[ii] The existing law allows abortions only when the life of the mother is in danger while accessing illegal abortions can result in imprisonment up to 14 years.[iii]

Between 1980 and 2016, at least over 170,000 women and girls from Ireland sought abortions in other countries. The UK was the destination of choice for a majority of these women, where over 3000 women have accessed abortions in the UK in 2016 alone, a number that is believed to be an underestimation.[iv]

In Ireland, cases such as the Savita Halappanavar, who died due to complications of a septic miscarriage show the urgency for change.[v] Savita, among others, was refused an abortion on request because she was already 17 weeks pregnant and her life was not deemed in threat by doctors.[vi]

Various human rights treaties and consensus documents, have recognised that couples and individuals have the right to decide freely and responsibly decide when, how and with whom to get pregnant, have the information and means to do so and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. They have the right to do so free of discrimination, coercion and violence.[vii]

Pro-life arguments position the zygote, embryo or foetus equal to women thereby curtailing her sexual and reproductive health and rights and her ability to make autonomous decisions regarding her fertility.[viii] Denying women access to safe abortion information and services, generally through legal restriction, is another breach of human rights.[ix]

In countries where abortion is legal, available and provided under medical supervision, it is an extremely safe medical procedure with minimum morbidity and insubstantial risk of death.[x] Global abortion trends suggest that the number of women seeking abortion does not decrease with a restrictive legal system, such as in Ireland. In fact, these women resort to seeking an unsafe abortion or opting for illegal means, which are mostly unsafe.[xi] This not only endangers women health due to life-threatening complications arising from unsafe abortion but also has grave repercussions in terms of the financial burden to health systems that are associated with it.[xii] Moreover, compelling women to undergo life-threatening abortion procedures undermine women’s right to health and life and constitutes gender discrimination.[xiii]

The Solidarity for the Right to Safe Abortion calls for:

  • Repealing the Eight Amendment unconditionally.
  • A removal of restrictive laws and policies that prevent the right to safe abortion and minimise quality and safe abortion services as well as restrict women and girls’ access to safe abortion services.
  • A recognition of women’s right to safe abortion as a human right by all parties concerned.
  • Guarantees and protection of all women’s right to life, health, freedom from discrimination, bodily integrity and autonomy.
  • Guarantees of universal access to affordable health care, including sexual and reproductive healthcare services to ensure that women and girls have access and can afford the care they need.
  • Universal access to contraceptive services, including emergency contraception, of high quality and variety, is user friendly and appropriate to the needs of women, including young women.

Endorsed by members of the Solidarity Alliance for the Right to Safe Abortion

  • Beyond Beijing Committee (BBC), Nepal
  • CommonHealth and ally SAHAJ Vadodara, India
  • Naripokkho, Bangladesh
  • Association for Prevention of Septic Abortions Bangladesh (BAPSA), Bangladesh
  • Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC), Cambodia
  • Women’s Global Network on Reproductive Rights (WGNRR), the Philippines

Original statement can be found here.

Saturday Church: Movie Screening and Discussion!

On the first Sunday of May, the Youth Advocacy Network had a limited-seating movie screening, followed by a discussion. The movie was Saturday Church, which tells the story of 14-year-old Ulysses, a shy and effeminate boy, who finds himself coping with new responsibilities as “man of the house” after the death of his father.

The event went smoothly, with about 15 people present.

Discussions after the movie were animated as attendees compared it to Sri Lankan contexts. We discussed how Saturday Church (the place) would work in a Sri Lankan context and also how the movie could have depicted sexuality a little better.

We also discussed how LGBTIQ people just want to be loved, accepted and desired sexually sometimes, more than anything else, and of how predators can come in any shape, age, and form. The scene depicting an apparently kindly, middle-aged man offering the protagonist a meal and clothes, and then sexually exploiting him, was used as an example.

After Rape, Every Hour Matters

According to Together For Girls, Hundreds of millions of people—including many children—are subjected to sexual violence, yet very few survivors ever tell anyone about the experience or access health services or mental health support to help them heal. Many do not understand the importance of these services or the fact that, after a rape, every hour matters in preventing potentially lifelong health problems. This is an unacceptable reality we must all work together to change.

Why is rapidly accessing care so critical?

  • HIV can be prevented if survivors receive life-saving medication within 72 hours.
  • Emergency contraception can help prevent a pregnancy if accessed within 120 hours.
  • Medical help for physical trauma may be urgently needed depending on the situation.

If you ever need someone to talk to, reach out to a friend. If that is not possible, Sri Lanka has several free professional mental healthcare services, who should be able to guide and help you.

You can reach out to:
Sumithrayo on 0112692909
Shanthi Maargam on 0717639898 or
CCCLine on 1333infographic

Toolkits, infographics, and more resources are available here: Every Hour Matters

50 Schools Commit To SDG Campaign


50 schools selected for the SDG Action Campaign received financial grants and technical support at an event held in Colombo last Thursday (05 April).

The Campaign for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is led by the UN in Sri Lanka together with the Ministry of Education in partnership with Hatton National Bank and the Presidential Secretariat in an effort to reach out to school students from across the country to design and implement an SDG based project in their communities.

The launch of these Goals, created a landmark moment in creating a much better world without leaving no one behind by 2030. However, achieving these 17 SDGs is everyone’s responsibility.

Speaking about the students’ role in contributing to the SDGs, Secretary to the Ministry of Education, Government of Sri Lanka, Mr. Sunil Hettiarachchi stated, “This student-led campaign shows good potential to serve as an excellent platform to pave a path towards achieving the SDGs in Sri Lanka”.

Since the launch of the campaign on 24 October 2017 commemorating UN Day, over 700 schools submitted their proposals and upon evaluation by the partners of the campaign, 50 SDG-centered proposals were selected representing the 25 Districts of Sri Lanka. These schools will now be linked with relevant experts and institutions, enhancing the students’ capacity to mobilize the communities around to help Sri Lanka achieve the SDGs.

Speaking about the Campaign, Director, ILO Country Office for Sri Lanka and the Maldives and the UN Communications Group Chair., Ms. Simrin Singh stated “Taking action for the SDGs is a collective effort. From the youngest student to the most experienced teacher, schools play an important role in spreading the word that everyone has a responsibility. The question is no longer if you want your classroom to connect to the world; the question now is simply when.”

Engaging youth is vital to Sri Lanka achieving the sustainable development to eradicate poverty, address climate change and build peaceful, inclusive societies for all. These projects will help students raise awareness of the SDGs in their communities and also contribute to the 2030 Agenda. In this regard, ensuring the sustainability of these projects is imperative.

Information and images courtesy of UN Sri Lanka.

Power of Partnership

asapA short report covering the conference to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership during the 24th and 25th of February 2018.

By Lakmini Prabani.
Cover image credit: ASAP

Day One

The conference was organized to commemorate the 10 years of movement building of Asia Safe Abortion Partnership. It was also to commemorate the power of partnership through celebrating the amazing, dedicated and passionate youth champions and their journeys.

Dr. Unnop Jaismaram made the welcome speech.

Sarah Soysa from YANSL delivered the keynote speech. She emphasized on the undeniable truth that access to safe abortion has a great deal of positive impact on women’s autonomy. She further stressed the need of developing strategies in local contexts to include the right to safe abortion, and the need of building and connecting abortion into the SDGs to ensure social and economic justice. 

Next up, the Yes We Can! panel discussion served as a platform for youth champions from India, Nepal, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The participants reflected on their role as advocates for abortion autonomy agency, and as partners for abortion rights. They also highlighted the work they do through local advocacy networks which are initiated and supported and guided by ASAP.

Priskila Arulpragarasam, also from YANSL, spoke about the work YANSL does as advocates on SRHR, safe abortion rights and gender equality.

Fighting for the good fight for abortion autonomy agency isn’t always an easy road. Sarah moderated the panel discussion “when the going gets tough” where the struggles and challenges of youth champions were discussed. The speakers highlighted that the greatest opposition for abortion they face is patriarchy. They stressed that this could be dismantled through the power of partnership.

Rola from Lebanon emphasized the importance of recognizing the multiple intersectionalities that make people with uteruses vulnerable and to build the right to safe abortion conversation about sexual and reproductive health and rights. Nikzad from Iran stressed that despite abortion being legal in Iran under certain circumstances, many do not have access to it.

Nearly all the speakers reiterated that ensuring abortion autonomy agency was difficult in countries where human rights were under attack.

Srimithi from Nepal highlighted that Nepal is the best example where data proves that maternal mortality rates drop when access for abortion is available and services increase. She also emphasized that young women around the world face the patriarchal expectations of 4Ms which are marriage, motherhood, money and masters.

The conference also shared experiences and true stories of people trying to buy condoms, medical abortion pills and pads from pharmacies in Asia. The stigma attached in accessing such services runs so deep in our societies and especially in areas on gender lines. Tanzila Khan from Pakistan expressed “I can’t by condoms, not because of stigma, fear or shame but because I can’t get into the store. It isn’t wheelchair accessible.”

Anecdotes like this highlighted how important universal healthcare needs to be.

John O Brian from Catholic for Choice said “There are coalitions and then there is hell. Power of partnership is possible only when you avoid the seven deadly sins as avoiding pride, envy, embracing temperance, sharing of resources and diligence.”  

Day Two:

Rola from Lebanon delivered the keynote speech at the 2nd day of the conference, where she emphasised that  hetero-patriarchy should be kept away from an individual’s body.  She also highlighted the importance of merging LGBTIQ movements, class movements, and abortion movements in order to be able to strenthen partnership and create a more powerful impact.

The session on intergenerational mentorship looked at how mentorship works within countries and among youth champions.

YANSL’s Prabani Perera pointed out how ASAP supported and guided youth champions who now work towards achieving safe abortion rights in both national and international platforms. She added that ASAP assisted YANSL in capacity building, related to technical, financial, and advocacy skills to push the agenda of reproductive justice and gender equality. Speaking further, she elaborated on how YANSL initiated a mentorship programme thanks to funding received by the Women’s Fund Asia.

The striggles and barriers Sri Lankans face in trying to legalise abortion, was addressed by Dr. Kapila Jayarathne.

At the panel discussion on Doctors as agents of change, the discussion looked at the conscience, access and life and the important role that medical students could play as safe abortion rights advocates. There also was a panel discussion where it talked about whether the men can be feminists. John O Brian emphasized that “feminist isn’t label, feminist is what we have to do and that’s really what matters to me. That I stand up against justice and oppression at every level.”

The conference declaration was delivered by Sarah, Yu Yang from China, and Niksad from Iran.

The conference concludes with one message from the youth champions which gives us all hope and courage to continue fighting this battle.

“I am not a liberal snowflake. My feelings aren’t fragile. My heart isn’t bleeding. I am a badass believer in human rights. My toughness is in tenderness. My strength is in the service of others. There is nothing fiercer than formidable, unconditional love. There is not a thing more courageous than compassion. But if my belief in equity, empathy goodness and love indeed makes me or people like me snowflakes, then you should know winter is coming.”