Abortion in Papua New Guinea

The Criminal Code (Ordinance No. 7 of 1902), which reproduces the 1899 Criminal Code Act of Queensland and was adopted as the law of then British New Guinea, is still in effect. Under this Code, the performance of abortions is generally illegal. A person who unlawfully administers any means to a woman with intent to procure her miscarriage is subject to up to fourteen years’ imprisonment. A woman who undertakes the same activity or consents to it is subject to up to seven years’ imprisonment.

The Code however, allows an abortion to be performed to save the life of a pregnant woman. It provides that a person is not criminally responsible for performing in good faith and with reasonable care and skill a surgical operation on an unborn child for the preservation of the mother’s life if the performance of the operation is reasonable, having regard to the patient’s state at the time and to all the circumstances of the case. Moreover, in 1974 the Justice Department of the Government of Papua New Guinea expressed the opinion that preservation of life includes preservation of the physical and mental health of the pregnant woman.

Abortion in Papua New Guinea is also regulated to some extent by customary law; indeed, the Constitution of the country requires that courts take custom into account in reaching their decision. In some parts of the country, abortion may not be regarded as wrong if the mother is unmarried or if the pregnancy is a result of an adulterous or incestuous relationship. Accordingly, if abortion is acceptable according to local custom, the person accused of performing an illegal abortion may be exonerated.

Induced abortion is practised in most of Papua New Guinea. It frequently has been done by such methods as ingestion of plant substances, binding of the abdomen and heavy massage. Although the number of illegal abortions is unknown, the available evidence suggests that the practice is common and possibly increasing. There has been a relatively high incidence of septic and haemorrhagic complications from “spontaneous abortions”, a high incidence of pelvic inflammatory disease and large numbers of patients with septic abortion and premature labour following unsuccessful illegal attempts at pregnancy termination.

As a result the demand for legal and safe medical termination of pregnancy is increasing. In 1990 the maternal mortality ratio was a high 930 deaths per 100,000 live births. Major causes included puerperal sepsis, post-partum haemorrhage, associated medical and surgical complications and prolonged or obstructed labour and ruptured uterus. By 1996, the modern contraceptive prevalence rate was 20 per cent, the total fertility rate for the 1995-2000 period was estimated at 4.6 children per woman.

Community-based family planning distribution programmes have been in operation for 25 years. The Government has been receiving international assistance to improve the health status of women and children through adequate maternal and child health and family planning care by focusing on the proper timing and spacing of births. Under the ICPD Programme of Action, Papua New Guinea began reforming its delivery of health services and promoting further training and awareness in reproductive health and family planning.

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