When Eliora found out she was pregnant in 2021, she didn’t tell her church community as she felt ashamed about getting pregnant outside of marriage. Instead, she started researching abortion on the internet. When she told her partner, whom she was not in a committed relationship with, he gave her a list of abortion clinics in the area.

Eliora, 29, was also unsure about her church’s stance on abortion, as she had never heard the topic talked about from the pulpit or in small group. Two weeks later, she terminated the pregnancy, thinking it was the most logical choice. (CT agreed to use only her first name due to the sensitivity around abortion in Singapore.)

However, what she thought was a one-off decision soon plunged her into overwhelming guilt. “Deep down, I just had this sense that if it is a life, then I have killed something. It just felt wrong,” Eliora said. “I wish that my [church] community was a space [where] I felt safe to reach out for help.”

Stories like Eliora’s are not uncommon in Singapore, where abortion is a largely taboo topic in the church. At the same time, Singapore has one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world due to the country’s former family planning policies in the ’70s. Abortion is legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy and not restricted by age. Minors do not need to obtain parental consent to get an abortion.

While the number of abortions in Singapore has halved in the past decade—likely due to the increased use of contraceptives and the growing acceptance of single mothers—approval of abortion has increased in the younger generations, including among Christians. A third of Christians between the ages of 18 to 35 believe abortion is “not wrong at all” if the family has very low income and cannot afford any more children, according to a 2019 Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) paper.

Yet many churches in Singapore are still not addressing the issue proactively. Ministries like Safe Place and Heartbeat Project are trying to change that by encouraging the church to speak up about abortion and the sanctity of life, to support women with unplanned pregnancies, and to become a sanctuary for women like Eliora who are seeking help and healing.

A taboo topic

Singapore became one of the first countries in Asia to legalize abortion in 1969. Since then, more than 660,000 babies have been aborted, based on data from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and Singapore’s Ministry of Health.

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The Singapore government encouraged abortions as it implemented a two-child policy due to fears that population growth would lead to overcrowding and a lack of resources on the island. The campaign heralded the benefits of small families and introduced measures to discourage couples from having more than two children, including reductions in tax relief, lower priority for housing, and lower priority for schools for larger families. Meanwhile, parents who underwent sterilization could get their children into top primary schools.

At the same time, the government eased access to abortion. In 1974, it abolished the need for women to obtain approval from authorities before getting an abortion, along with age requirements.

In the ’80s, Singapore scrambled to reverse the policy as it saw its population plummeting. The government began incentivizing families to have three or more children, including offering parents “Baby Bonus” cash gifts and paid paternity leave. Still, the effects are lasting: the fertility rate in Singapore is still one of the lowest in the world, at 1.05 in 2022.

Today, the top reasons married women in Singapore give for seeking an abortion are that they have enough children and that they are unable to afford another child, according to a 2023 study published in the Singapore Medical Journal. The same study found that single women abort because they are unmarried and not ready to start a family.

Since the 1980s, Christianity has grown in the country from 10 percent to 19 percent today. Yet in churches, abortion remains a largely taboo topic. That’s because it is regarded as a “secretive, personal choice” and because Christians often find discussions on it complicated or irrelevant, said Jennifer Heng, the founder and director of Safe Place, which provides shelter and support for women with unplanned pregnancies.

According to traditional Asian cultural norms, sex before marriage is considered immoral, so families look down on and are ashamed of getting pregnant out of wedlock. Sex is typically not discussed, so as modernization and Western influences spread, the countering value systems have led Singaporeans to view abortion as a logical solution to unwanted pregnancies.

“The large majority of the women come to us for help primarily because the men in their lives have abdicated their responsibility [to parent],” Heng said. “So the woman is left on her own and she’s thinking, How on earth am I going to do this? We see this over and over again.”

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Safe Place is taking steps toward preparing churches to minister to these women. In July, the group held a workshop to train pastors to provide practical help to women with unplanned pregnancies who lack a support system. Through case studies based on real-life scenarios, experienced pastors taught fellow leaders how to counsel women to explore alternatives to abortion, such as adoption.

Heng geared her workshop toward pastors “because if even our shepherds are not clear [about their stance on abortion], where on earth are they leading the sheep? What kind of grass are they feeding the sheep?” she asked. “Awareness about the issues surrounding abortion and unsupported pregnancies needs to start with the shepherds first.”

Sixteen of the 20 pastors invited showed up to the workshop. The small number of attendees demonstrated to Heng that abortion is still a low-priority issue for the Singaporean church, yet it’s a start.

Discipling the youth

Singaporean Christian denominations, groups, and media have made statements on abortion and written articles on the topic, but often, that doesn’t translate to discussion within churches. Norman Ng, senior pastor of 3:16 Church and co-founder of the online platform Heartbeat Project, believes that the church’s silence makes young Christians vulnerable to the influence of the world.

“In an oversexualized culture, sexual exploration can be very real for youths today, even for those within the church,” Ng said. “However, it may not be uncommon for churches to avoid having honest conversations with youths on this subject.”

The IPS study reveals that younger generations are more accepting of abortion for economic reasons. While 64 percent of Christians older than 56 said abortion is always wrong in cases when the family has low income and can’t afford any more children, that percentage plummets to 22 for Christians between ages 18 and 35. Two in three young Christians responded that it is “not wrong at all” or “wrong only sometimes” to have an abortion in that situation.

Disturbed by these findings, Ng penned an impassioned open letter to pastors in Singapore in 2020 calling for them to teach young Christians about what Scripture says about life and abortion. “When left unsaid, questions tend to emerge,” Ng wrote. “Questions like: If abortion is legal and so accessible, why is it wrong? If it’s so serious, then why isn’t the church saying anything about it?”

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Four years later, Ng still believes that the church can do more in shaping young people, whose values are heavily influenced not by the church but by the culture.

“If we don’t disciple our children, the world will,” Ng said. “And they are actively doing so to cultivate values that abortion is acceptable and it is part of women’s rights. [Yet] there still isn’t an urgency to instill a biblical worldview on the sanctity of life.”

At 3:16 Church, where Ng pastors with his wife, Debbie, discussion on the sanctity of life takes place not just from the pulpit but also through age-appropriate conversations.

For the youth, the church held a session to answer questions about dating, sex, and abortion. The church also brought in a mother who shared her journey of becoming pregnant when she was a teenager and her and the father’s choice to keep their baby.

For young adults, the church hosted a panel that included a pastor, a doctor, and a Christian woman who had an abortion in her early 20s. The young adults asked questions, including whether abortion is acceptable in cases when the unborn baby is diagnosed with special needs, when the mother’s life is in danger, or when the mother is raped.

For parents, the church asked them to evaluate the conversations they are having with their children about sex and purity while also considering how they would respond if their children were to get pregnant before marriage. “These discussions helped parents realize how critical their encouragement and support is in such a situation,” Debbie said. “What they say to their child could literally be a matter of life and death.”

Having such conversations in more intimate settings helps believers feel more comfortable to ask questions and to share their personal experiences about abortion, Debbie said.

Unpacking shame and stigma

For women who have already had an abortion, stigma and shame often cause them to keep it a secret from other Christians or to avoid church altogether.

A recent study by the Journal of Religion and Health asked 11 Protestant women in Singapore about who they would turn to if they were considering an abortion. The study found that while most of the women desired support from their faith communities, they also feared being judged by other Christians.

“Participants also reported a culture of silence within their churches regarding abortion, making it harder for them to identify safe sources of support and to comfortably seek it,” the researchers wrote.

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Eliora, who similarly dealt with deep guilt and shame about her abortion, approached the pro-life group Buttons Project Singapore to help her process her emotional turmoil. Started in 2017 by June Bai, Buttons Project offers support services such as inner healing sessions for Christians who have had abortions.

In most cases, “I’m the first person to hear their stories,” Bai said. “They feel ashamed. They don’t dare to tell people [because] they are afraid of being judged.”

Bai was terrified when she first opened up to her church friends about the abortion she had had in her 20s. One of them later sent her a text message: “No matter what you did, I still love you as a sister.” The loving acceptance she experienced moved her to tears. She realized she had a safe place to share her pain.

Eliora attended several sessions with Bai that addressed the root issues from her childhood and family that led to her decision to abort.

“I was very grateful for [Bai’s] platform, because you see someone who has gone through [abortion], who is able to empathize and is able to provide something in a safe space.”

Eliora left her previous church and worships at 3:16 Church today. She is thankful that the latter creates spaces for people to have honest conversations about difficult topics. Taking part in these conversations has reshaped her thinking not just about abortion but also about life itself: “The value of life is not determined by me; it’s determined by God.”

A vast mission field

Heng of Safe Place sees the hundreds of thousands of women who have had abortions in Singapore since the 1970s as a vast mission field. After having two abortions as a teen before encountering God in her 20s, Heng started Life Network, which brings together Protestant and Catholic organizations, doctors, and students to build a “culture of life” in Singapore. Since its inception in 2012, the network has held conferences, published books, and helped start organizations like the Heartbeat Project.

In 2018, she launched Safe Place to offer practical help to women with unplanned pregnancies. “Many of us can say abortion is not a good thing, but how many of us can tangibly provide an alternative?” Heng said. “We need to be moving from talk to action. Our faith has to be accompanied by deeds.”

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The group has helped more than 400 women with counseling, providing temporary accommodations, and equipping them with life skills such as financial management and career guidance. Heng and her team at Safe Place journey with the pregnant women in need, even when they choose to terminate their pregnancies.

“Our only hope is that for those who have chosen abortion, if they ever get pregnant again, they can choose differently,” Heng said. “I’ve had a woman who had four abortions before she realized, ‘The fifth one, I’ll keep [the child].’ I walked with her until it sank into her [that abortion is not the solution].”

While some churches are not ready for a sermon on abortion, a small number of churches have made recent strides in opening up discussions about abortion. One church invited the Heartbeat Project to speak to its leaders and revised its leadership ethics to include a biblical position on sexuality, life, and abortion. A pastor from another church mobilized 20 to 30 church members to care for a new believer with an unplanned pregnancy. The new believer was contemplating abortion because of pressure from her family.

“The issue of abortion is tough and messy and requires sacrifices from us,” Heng said. “But we cannot look the other way. The church should see the many needs that arise from unsupported pregnancies and abortion and take every opportunity to serve those who are hurting and afraid.”