The parliament of East Timor – a small, Catholic nation in South East Asia recognized as an independent state in 2002 – has resisted concerted pressure from United Nations agencies and pro-abortion non-governmental organizations (NGOs) by enacting a revised penal law that continues to criminalize abortion in virtually all cases.
With last week’s 45 to 0 vote with only 7 abstentions on the main operative paragraph, parliament retained penal sanctions on abortion, except in instances where abortion is the "only way" to prevent death to the mother as attested to by three independent physicians. A preambular paragraph states that life "from the moment of conception" is entitled to protection. Abortionists are subject to up to eight years imprisonment, depending on the circumstances. The law also recognizes the conscience rights of doctors to refuse to perform abortions.
Efforts to broaden the abortion license to include cases of fetal abnormality and pregnancies resulting from rape were rejected. In addition, an abortion law that would have included broad exceptions for cases affecting the physical or mental health of the mother that had been adopted in early April by the executive branch’s Council of Ministers was effectively overruled by last week’s legislative action.
Following the end of Indonesian occupation in 1999, East Timor – or Timor Leste – was administered by the United Nations until independence. The previously existing penal code inherited from Indonesia had banned abortion in all instances.
East Timor has been in the crosshairs of the international pro-abortion movement. The Alola Foundation, an NGO backed by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and headed by East Timor’s Australian-born First Lady, intervened repeatedly in the ongoing Timorese debate by seeking abortion liberalization.
In contrast, grassroots NGOs with on-the-ground membership such as Organização das Mulheres Timorenses, whose bona fides were established during the resistance to Indonesian rule, reportedly opposed liberalization, reflecting popular Timorese sentiment.
One international NGO supported by the Australian government and the United States Agency for International Development, the Judicial System Monitoring Programme (JSMP), claimed that "International treaty law specifically supports the right of women to have access to safe abortion methods," including in cases of pregnancy due to rape and incest or where the fetus is abnormal. Echoing arguments made elsewhere by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, JSMP citied treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination Against All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. There is no support for such assertions in the language of either treaty, however, nor in any other treaty to which Timor Leste is a signatory.
Former United States Ambassador to East Timor Grover Joseph Rees told the Friday Fax that the "claim that access to abortion is an internationally recognized human right" is "outrageous," while commending the Timorese for "remaining faithful to Timor’s own best values and traditions – in this case the principle of respect for all human life, including the lives of unborn children."
East Timor will appear before the committee charged with monitoring compliance with CEDAW next month, and it has already submitted a report responding to questioning over its legislation protecting life. It is anticipated that the CEDAW committee will press the country on its new legislation now that it has been finalized.