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Every night for a week, Mazlinda Majlam had the same nightmare. “It’s a silhouette of a baby sitting down, and he will just be looking at me. The baby has no eyes, but he will be looking at me,” she said.
The horrifying dreams began in April, the night she returned home from having an abortion — two months after she was retrenched as a result of Singapore’s worst recession in more than 40 years.
The mother of three said “bad economic times” prompted her to terminate the pregnancy and she would not hesitate to have another abortion if necessary.
“I can’t afford it,” said the tall, slim Majlam of the prospect of having another child soon.
Despite a national campaign to boost the birthrate, Singapore has one of Asia’s most liberal abortion policies and the global financial crisis could be prompting more women to terminate pregnancies.
A Ministry of Health spokeswoman said there were 12,222 abortions in the city-state last year, compared to 11,933 in 2007. No official figures are available for 2009.
Gynaecologist Saifuddin Sidek said his private practice had recorded a 20 percent rise in abortion patients so far this year compared with the same period last year.
“A lot of them are because of the current economic climate,” he said.
“No matter what incentives the government gives, (parents) may find it a bit hard to make ends meet, especially if they already have more than (one or) two children,” he said.
Government figures show 39,935 babies delivered in 2008, well below the 60,000 Singapore needs just to maintain its native population.
With abortion figures rising amid anecdotal evidence that the economic downturn is a contributing factor, Singapore’s efforts to encourage couples to have more babies, including financial perks, could be derailed.
Latest official data put the 2007 fertility rate, the number of births for each woman in her lifetime, at 1.29 births. The ideal population replacement rate is 2.1 births per woman.
With 4.8 million people including foreign workers, Singapore’s long-term population target is 6.5 million people, which national planners say is the optimal figure for the country to remain economically competitive.
More immigrants are being allowed in to make up for the baby shortfall.
Doctors say ease of access to legal abortions at public hospitals and private clinics, coupled with heavy medical subsidies, have made abortions a practical choice for Singaporeans who cannot afford to raise a child.
In some Asian countries, abortion is illegal or difficult to undergo, giving rise to underground abortion clinics. Not in Singapore.
“In Singapore abortion is readily available and is regulated, so I think that is the good thing about it,” said Saifuddin.
In addition to financially pressed patients, Saifuddin said a large number of abortion cases involve unmarried women, including teenagers.
“It’s not in our culture to be single parents, that’s why abortion is a more viable alternative,” he said.
Under the law, abortion patients must undergo compulsory counselling two days before the procedure, which cannot be conducted if the pregnancy is more advanced than 24 weeks, unless the woman’s life is in danger.
The health ministry spokesman said the regulations on abortion were meant to “ensure that all children born in Singapore are wanted children, who will be properly cared for”.
Mazlinda, who said she is looking for a new job to make ends meet, already has two teenage daughters and a six-year-old son and has to stretch her husband’s meagre income as a supermarket cashier.
“Of course we all love kids but it’s not possible for me to support (a new baby),” she said, adding: “Whenever I walk past a baby, I will feel very sad, very depressed.”