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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Law to combat unsafe abortions

Law to combat unsafe abortions

PLACING a red-hot brick on your stomach, having your abdomen grabbed and wrenched

till you feel excruciating pain, or having your midsection cut open with scissors

- these may sound like medieval tortures, but in fact they are some of the common

methods used by Cambodian women in illegal attempts to abort unwanted fetuses.

However, a new Ministry of Health project, along with the passage last month of Cambodia's

first abortion law, leads many experts to feel optimistic that women can be spared

the dangers of illegal abortions. Yet qualms about abortion's morality remain in

this strongly Buddhist country.

"I was very, very afraid ... there was a lot of blood and very bad pain,"

said a 33-year-old ex-prostitute of her recent illegal abortion. Sold into a brothel

where only about half the clients used condoms, she was soon pregnant. The brothel

owner took her to a back-alley midwife.

"I don't know where it was, it was just someone's house. I was too afraid to

say anything," she said. The midwife gave her a "massage" abortion,

which consists of pinching and twisting the womb from the outside in order to break

the body of the fetus.

Now, she said, she suffers from a painful infection of the uterus and has not been

able to get pregnant again.

Safer abortion methods, such as aspiration (suction) or a dilation and curettage

(D and C), both of which are used in Western countries, are available in Cambodia.

However, many women use (or are forced to use) the more brutal methods because they

are cheaper, said Chanthol Oung, executive director of the Cambodian Women's Crisis

Center.

Private clinics offer safer abortions performed by doctors, but at a cost. Charges

at a well-known maternity clinic in Phnom Penh start at $60 and get higher the more

advanced the pregnancy is, according to a medical assistant.

Chanthol Oung said a midwife will typically charge 90,000 riels (about $30) for a

suction or D and C procedure, as opposed to a 20,000-riel ($6) massage. "Some

women just beat themselves," Oung added.

According to a 1995 survey by the National Maternal and Child Health Center, 5.4%

of women admitted to having an abortion, and 25% said they knew someone who had.

The second figure hints that the first may be a product of under-reporting, according

to experts.

The Ministry of Health embarked in July on a new phase of the National Maternal and

Child Health project, aimed at improving reproductive health conditions nationwide.

The United Nations Population Fund and the British Overseas Development Association

are providing $7 million for the four-year project. The program concentrates on birth

spacing, maternal and child health, and management of sexually transmitted diseases,

according to Dr Chhun Long, project coordinator.

While stressing that the project emphasizes contraceptive methods - not abortion

- in its counseling and campaigning, Dr. Chhun Long acknowledged that there is a

need to provide abortions nonetheless.

"We want to provide contraception first. But we know that we cannot get all

women to use birth spacing methods, so, for the rest of them, we want to save their

lives too," he said.

The project will train doctors and midwives to be "authorized providers"

of safe abortion services and to deal with the complications from botched back-alley

jobs. Although statistics on abortion dangers are hard to estimate, Chhun Long said,

a 1994 hospital survey showed that abortions caused about one-third of all maternal

deaths. Late abortions were particularly dangerous, he noted.

"Sometimes women we see in late stages of pregnancy waited and waited [to go

for an abortion] because they had no safe place to go. We hope there won't be many

now," said Chhun Long of the new abortion law.

Kann Man, chairman of the National Assembly commission on public health, agreed that

legal abortions would help save lives. "We created and adopted this law with

the aim of protecting women's lives and social order," he said of the Assembly's

unanimous passage of legislation legalizing abortions Oct 6.

The new law allows women to abort unconditionally in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy

and, if there are health dangers, in later stages as well. Women who have been raped

may abort at any time. The law also sets out requirements for legal abortion providers

and penalties for violators.

"You don't have to avail yourself of the law but you can choose - at least have

it done safely," said Eve Tamela of Marie Stopes International, a UK-based reproductive-health

organization providing technical support to the Ministry of Health project.

However, the new law is not without its critics. Dr. Lao Mong Hay, executive director

of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said that his group had appealed to MPs to

derail the law during the parliamentary debate, on the grounds that abortion is contrary

to Buddhist beliefs and a violation of human rights.

"Buddhism's first precept is that we must not terminate life," Mong Hay

said. "It's a state religion in our Constitution...we need to restore moral

and ethical values in this country."

A medical assistant at a clinic where abortions are performed agreed. "The doctors

here are all Buddhists. Sometimes they feel guilty, like they are committing sins.

But because they are state employees and don't have enough salary, they must [perform

abortions on the side] to feed their families."

"We don't have a word for 'fetus' in our language," continued Mong Hay.

"'Human infant' is the word we use. Based on this Cambodian conception, this

is a term of life. So [abortion] is a violation of human rights - the right to life

as guaranteed by the Constitution."

Sam Kanitha, one of the few female National Assembly members, dismissed such criticism.

"It is not to kill people, but to prevent illegal killing. And we also prohibit

private clinics from conducting illegal abortion, as they were not responsible for

any dangers. I supported this law because as long as we have it, we are able to decrease

these illegal activities."

Dr Chhun Long said: "I don't think anyone will be opposed to this law ... if

they think a little bit, they will support us."

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