Although we have laws in place allowing for abortion under special circumstances, there seems to be more confusion than clarity due to the lack of clear interpretation and understanding of these laws. And often, the ones most impacted are Malaysia’s vulnerable women.
Malaysia is one of the few Muslim countries in the world that actually allows abortion, albeit under specific circumstances. However, the legal framework surrounding this issue is far from comprehensive4. An estimated 100,000 abortions are believed to occur every year1 even as advocacy groups say not enough is being done to provide women with the support they need.
At a glance, here’s where Malaysia stands on abortion
- Abortion is only permitted if it is to save a woman’s life or preserve her mental or physical health
- A lack of clarity surrounding the law on abortion has led to confusion over its legality, mostly affecting young and vulnerable women
- The law empowers medical practitioners to allow or refuse an abortion, leaving room for personal interpretation
- Access to information and services on abortion remains scarce
- Public hospitals carry out abortions under tight restrictions, so many women have sought private healthcare services. As it is not regulated, they can be charged exorbitantly and/or suffer from a lack of quality care.
- Activists maintain that proper sex education, safe sex discussions, curbing of social stigma and proper support for single mothers can make a difference
As Christ-followers, we must seek His Word and heart to understand, interpret and determine how to approach the topic of abortion with care, love and wisdom.
What does Malaysian law actually say regarding abortion?
A general rule of thumb when trying to understand abortion law in Malaysia is that voluntary abortions are generally illegal, no matter the circumstance.3 Abortion is covered in Section 312 of the Penal Code, where most abortions are considered illegal. However, as abortion law reform picked up in recent decades, two amendments were made in 1971 and 1989.
The two amendments now mean that:
- Abortion is allowed to save a woman’s life (1971)
- Abortion is allowed to preserve a woman’s physical or mental health (1989)
“In essence, Section 312 states that abortion is permitted if a registered medical practitioner is of the opinion, formed in good faith, that the continuance of the pregnancy would be a threat to the woman’s life or cause injury to the woman’s physical or mental health.”Kasturi Puvanesvaran, Lawyer at Thomas Philip Advocates & Solicitors4
For those interested in the nitty-gritty, here’s how Section 312 reads3:
“Whoever voluntarily causes a woman with child to miscarry shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine or with both; and if the woman is quick with child, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years, and shall also be liable to fine.
Exception—This section does not extend to a medical practitioner registered under the Medical Act 1971 [Act 50] who terminates the pregnancy of a woman if such medical practitioner is of the opinion, formed in good faith, that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, or injury to the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated.”
Simply put, abortion is actually legal in Malaysia but in very limited cases. Yet, much confusion remains over the issue due to the lack of clarity surrounding interpretation and understanding.
There is no actual mention of the word ‘abortion’ in the law, and ambiguous text leaves room for interpretation
“How do we interpret ‘good faith’? The law doesn’t state when a registered medical practitioner can legally perform an abortion, nor at what stage of the pregnancy it can be performed.”Dinesh Mutthal, Criminal Lawyer7
According to the Health Ministry’s Guideline on Termination of Pregnancy, expulsion or removal of an embryo or foetus can be done when it is incapable of independent survival (500g, or 22 weeks gestation)8.
Mutthal also added that a fatwa was announced by the National Fatwa Council in 2002 permitting abortion up to 120 days of the age of the foetus if the mother’s life is endangered or impairment of the foetus is a possibility.7
While the law permits abortion under certain circumstances, Puvanesvaran says that many face challenges accessing information and services due to the confusion over its legality. Even healthcare professionals aren’t always well-versed with the law.
A 2007 survey by Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance Malaysia (RRAAM) of 120 doctors and nurses found that 43% did not know on what grounds abortion is legal and 41% of women who had legal abortions in private clinics were unaware of what is allowed2.
The law’s lack of clarity provides medical practitioners with the power to impose personal beliefs, argue activists
At the same time, the phrase ‘good faith’ in Section 312 means that a registered medical practitioner ultimately gets to decide whether or not an abortion is permitted.
“With no legal or clinical practice guidelines in regards to such ethical issues, the availability of abortion services varies, depending on the views of the heads of obstetrics and gynaecology in public hospitals. What constitutes harm on mental well-being is not clearly stated in Section 312, and hence, doctors can reject the procedure based on their personal views.”Jeslyn Kho, CodeBlue5
Kho opines that by providing so much room for medical practitioners in the public sector to refuse an abortion based on personal stance or religious beliefs, women end up moving from one hospital to another in search of a doctor willing to perform the abortion.
And then, there’s the social stigma. Puvanesvaran adds that the judgment surrounding unwed pregnant women, poor sex education, lack of willpower for safe sex discussions and lack of support for single mothers often lead to young women seeking unsafe abortions4.
As a result, desperate women turn to pills or private healthcare providers for ‘under the table’ procedures
This is why activists and academics point out that women, especially those from poor or vulnerable communities, remain the most impacted by the uncertainty surrounding abortion in Malaysia. There’s little access to useful information, and its perceived illegality pushes both the women to seek pills or clandestine abortions by private healthcare providers.
According to RRAAM, there are around 240 clinics in Malaysia offering abortion services, although not all have been screened for safety or quality of care6.
RRAAM president Dr Subatra Jayaraj said an estimated 100,000 abortions occur every year5 in Malaysia, but the fees offered by private providers aren’t regulated and range from RM700 to RM8,000 per procedure.7
“The problems for women lie primarily in getting accurate information on available safe abortion services and at affordable fees. The lack of such services in public hospitals together with the general perception that abortions are illegal allows many private providers, of both safe and unsafe methods, to exploit the situation by charging exorbitant fees. It also encourages a judgmental attitude amongst providers to these clients, which is totally against healthcare ethics.”Low WH, Tong WT and Gunasegaran V, 20139
Who suffers the most? Malaysia’s poor and vulnerable women, as well as refugees and migrants
The exorbitant cost of private abortions and extremely tight restrictions for abortions at public hospitals puts vulnerable women between a rock and a hard place. Federation of Reproductive Health Associations Malaysia (FRHAM) president Dr Dinesh Mahalingam says those affected aren’t just B40 and M40 communities, but refugees and migrants as well.7
Those who cannot afford a private abortion turn to online pills. In 2015, Women on Web (an online provider of abortion pills) reported that 33,781 Malaysian women visited their portal while 1,109 contacted their helpdesk6.
The statistics show that there needs to be greater awareness surrounding abortion in Malaysia. And the issue is not standalone; activists link baby dumping to the criminalisation of abortion.
“Infanticide is often a direct result of the criminalisation and inaccessibility of abortion. Section 309 of the Penal Code states that punishment for infanticide is imprisonment of up to 20 years, and a fine. Between 2005 and 2011, there were 517 cases of abandoned babies recorded in Malaysia. In 2016, the number of abandoned babies recorded was 115.Nandini Archer, International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion7
Abortion is a complex and multi-faceted issue in Malaysia today. As Christians, how can we pray?
Abortion has and continues to be a divisive issue amongst Christians today. For some, you know your stand whilst for others, a journey in search of an answer has yet to end. No matter where you are, we can all agree that the Giver of Life values life — the life of a foetus, a scared young woman, an unwanted child, a desperate mother.
As Christ-followers, therefore, we can seek His wisdom and grace to understand, interpret and determine how to approach abortion (and more importantly, the children, mothers and families affected) with care, to love each life the way He does and to reflect His love in all we do.
If you’ve been struggling with how to pray surrounding this issue, here are some suggested prayer points to get started:
- Pray for every woman in Malaysia facing an unintended pregnancy today, that she will receive the support and clarity she needs
- Pray for fathers involved in unintended pregnancies to step up and take greater responsibility in the decision-making process
- Pray for Malaysian laws and policies on abortion to provide greater clarity over what is permissible and what is not
- Pray for healthcare providers to act responsibly and with integrity, value life over profit and advise their patients as best they can
- Pray for educators to provide comprehensive sex education so that youths are fully aware of their reproductive rights and can make informed decisions
- Pray for a culture of compassion and grace among Malaysian Christians, that we will be the first to open our arms and refrain from judgement (James 4:12, Matthew 7)
- Lim HW, 2015, Country Profile: On Universal Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health: Malaysia, Federation of Reproductive Health Associations Malaysia (FRHAM)
- Abdullah R, Abortion in Malaysia, legal yet still inaccessible, 2009, Arrows for Change
- Laws of Malaysia, Act 574, Section 312
- Puvanesvaran, K 2020, Abortion in Malaysia, Thomas Philip Advocates & Solicitors.
- Kho, J 2021, Malaysia’s State of Abortion is a Losing Game for Women, CodeBlue
- Zi, TM 2019, Three reasons why abortion remains a legal taboo in Malaysia
- Archer, N. 2018, The law, trials and imprisonment for abortion in Malaysia, International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion
- Supramani, S (2022) ‘Good faith’ abortions, The Sun Daily
- Guideline on Termination of Pregnancy, 2012, Ministry of Health
- Low WY, Tong WT, Gunasegaran V, 2013, Issues of Safe Abortions in Malaysia, Reproductive Rights and Choice, University Malaya
Queena Lee contributed to fact-gathering and research for this article.