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Govt addresses family planning, abortion concerns

Burmese mother and newborn baby. (PHOTO: Wenying Seah/ DVB)

The government is moving to extend health and maternal care services countrywide, in a bid to reduce the incidence of risky illegal abortions and high rates of maternal fatalities.

That’s according to Deputy Health Minister Dr Thein Thein Htay, who made the announcement in a parliamentary session on 26 August in response to questions raised by National League for Democracy (NLD) parliamentarian Dr May Win Myint, who had raised concerns about the persistently high maternal and infant fatality rates in Burma.

According to a 2014 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report, Burma continues to report one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the Southeast Asian region, with 200 deaths per 100,000 registered live births. The UNFPA report attributes 87 percent of maternal deaths to rural areas, where a lack of infrastructure and healthcare access contribute to the high figure.

Many women and families across Burma are in need of additional family planning options, including birth control, with the report citing the need for unmet family planning at 19 percent. In neighbouring Thailand, the figure is substantially lower at only three percent.

Dr Thein Thein Htay said that separate funding for family planning – worth some 500 million kyat (US$400,000) – had already been distributed in 2014-15. Pilot projects addressing family planning are currently underway in 12 townships, he said, adding that the programme is expected to expand nationwide from 2016-18.

Termination of pregnancy remains illegal under section 312 of Burma’s Penal Code unless the voluntary miscarriage is performed ‘in good faith’ to save the life of the woman. An early-stage termination can result in a maximum of three years; a later-stage procedure can be extended to seven years imprisonment with the added possibility of a fine.

Burmese women who are unable to meet the criteria of this legal loophole often travel across the border to Thailand, where a referral option exists to access abortion in some Thai hospitals and clinics.

The Ministry of Health receives only 3.38 percent of the Burmese GDP, but the government is attempting to lift this figure to 5 percent, the deputy minister reported in parliament.