Towards greater access to abortion in Taiwan?

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<p class=Each statuette represents an aborted pregnancy.

In contrast to what is happening in the United States this summer, in Taiwan, we have been thinking for a few years about extending the right to abortion. That does not mean, however, that the subject is no longer taboo and that access to abortion is easy for everyone.

The first territory to recognize gay marriage on the continent, Taiwan is one of the most progressive places in Asia. Health experts estimate, based on historical trend, that 26,000 legal abortions were performed last year on the island of 24 million people. In addition, tens of thousands more would be done clandestinely.

We have noticed an increase in the number of women using our online services and seeking psychological counseling in recent years, says Li Yu-Chan, the president of Taiwan Medical and Health Counseling Psychology Association. Especially when women are afraid that those around them will find out why they are contacting us, they can obtain services through the internet.

Under Taiwan's Genetic Health Law passed during the time of martial law in 1984 and amended a few times since, married women still need to obtain spousal consent today to access the abortion.

Minors must provide permission from their parents or legal guardians. A reflection has been underway for a few years and legislative changes to broaden access to abortion in Taiwan could soon be proposed to these groups.

Such proposed changes, endorsed by women's aid groups, were due to be tabled last year, but have been postponed.

Many women ask for help because their husband is violent or they already wanted a divorce before the pregnancy, says Chen Shu-Fang, the general secretary of the support group Women's Link. So how is it possible to obtain spousal permission for an abortion under such conditions?

Many teenage girls even turn to clandestine clinics or find other illegal ways to force an abortion.

Hsieh Ming-Wa and his companion

At the Taoist Long-Hu Temple in Miaoli, central Taiwan, small bronze statuettes sit on tables near the outdoor prayer areas. Each statuette represents an aborted pregnancy, whether voluntarily or not.

The faithful bring offerings and pray to several gods in different rooms before participating in religious songs outside.

The religious influence remains very strong in Taiwan. According to Taoist and Buddhist temples, one must ask for forgiveness for 1000 days, or almost three years, from the spirit of the child who was not born. Otherwise, according to these temples, the spirit will not be able to reincarnate and the family will not experience harmony.

We were the first temple in Taiwan to offer such prayers 30 years ago, said Long-Hu Temple director Lin Zi-Yao. About 20,000 people in Taiwan offer such prayers every year. This is important.

They are silent and go almost unnoticed. Hsieh Ming-Wa and her boyfriend, a couple in their early twenties, pay their respects at the Taoist Long-Hu temple.

They offer prayers to honor the memory of the child that they chose not to have.

Circumstances did not allow it, it was not the right time, said Hsieh Ming-Wa. I did not want to have an abortion, but after very long consideration, we concluded that it was the right thing to do. I took medicine provided by a doctor. It was very clear as approach. The couple begins their spiritual journey to free themselves from feelings of guilt. They plan to come back to pray every Sunday.

Proof that abortion often remains taboo in Taiwan, no one around them is aware of the process.

I'm afraid of the reaction of my family and friends. My friends would probably pity me. The older ones in the family would probably ask me why I didn't protect myself and why I didn't choose to keep the child.

Access to abortion could soon to be extended to Taiwan, but social acceptability on a larger scale remains a completely different debate.

Our correspondent in Asia Philippe Leblanc will be based in Taiwan over the next few months in order to make us discover this island of nearly 24 million inhabitants, its society and the challenges that animate it. And also to cover current issues throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

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