Health & Science

A dentist in Indonesia arrested for performing hundreds of illegal abortions

Abortion in Indonesia is authorized only in a few cases, and hundreds of thousands of women have an abortion clandestinely.

Bali police
Bali police press conference announcing the arrest of a dentist who allegedly performed illegal abortions | © Bali police

A dentist was arrested in Indonesia because he allegedly performed abortions on pregnant women illegally.

On May 15, the Bali Regional Police announced they arrested a dentist last week after a tip about his services. An online search then led the cybercrime Ditreskrimsus Bali Police to the suspect.

When the police raided the practice at 9.30 pm, the doctor had just performed an abortion on a woman who had come with her boyfriend, according to the police statement. A housekeeper worked with him to clean up the practice. The three persons were heard as witnesses in the case. Authorities seized a patient log notebook, cash, medical devices for surgical abortions and post-abortion drugs.

The police had earlier checked with the Indonesian Medical Association, who told them the suspect was not an obstetrician but a dentist. He didn’t do any dentistry.

The self-taught doctor learned online and through books how to perform an abortion, usually for fetuses of a couple of weeks.

According to the police, the suspect admitted he could perform abortions for about 20 patients daily since 2020, when he opened his practice. On average, a patient paid 3.8 million rupiahs (256 dollars) for the intervention, nearly a month and a half of the minimum salary in Bali in 2023.

He told authorities he started performing abortions because he felt sorry for the patients who came to him asking for an abortion, usually young – high school and college students – or unmarried women. Some came from outside the island of Bali.

During a press conference, the police said they estimated he had performed abortions on 1,338 people since he started in 2006. The 53-year-old male faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to 10 billion rupiah (674,000 dollars) for various charges, including practicing abortion without a license.

Abortion is common in Indonesia

Abortion in Indonesia is permitted but only under very specific conditions. It is not a crime only in the case of rape, severe fetal impairment or when the pregnancy threatens the life or health of the woman. It needs the authorization of health professionals, which can be challenging to obtain, and cannot be done only at the woman’s request. It also requires the partner’s approval.

But Indonesia’s health law clearly states that “every person is prohibited from having an abortion.”

With these legal restrictions added to the stigma of aborting, many women seek to abort clandestinely.

Abortions, which were traditionally performed by massage or insertion of herbal decoctions, are common in Indonesia. Hundreds of thousands of women have an abortion yearly, although very few statistics are available.

In the past years, a few studies estimated 25 to 40 abortions annually per 1,000 women between 15 and 49 years old in a country of 280 million people.

Unsafe abortions would cause at least 14 percent of maternal deaths – deaths that occur during or following a pregnancy – in Indonesia. They could account for up to 30 percent, according to IPAS, an organization promoting access to abortion and contraception.

Indonesia has some of the highest maternal and neonatal death rates in Southeast Asia.

The 16th largest world economy, 132nd in gross domestic product per capita, suffers from inequitable access to health services, because of the lack of good road infrastructure for example, especially to poor and isolated populations.

In 2020, there were 173 maternal deaths for 100,000 live births in Indonesia, the 134th country worldwide. However, there is considerable variability in the estimates, whose average maternal mortality ratio is 223 deaths for 100,000 live births globally.

Better access to health services, safe abortions, family planning with contraceptives to avoid unintended pregnancies are some factors helping reduce maternal deaths.

More information about the dangers of unsafe abortions

The dentist of Bali was already sentenced to 2.5 years in prison in 2006 for a similar case and again to six years in 2009 because one of his patients bled and died from an abortion.

In February, the ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection raised concerns about the increasing number of unsafe abortions in the country after a woman died from bleeding during an abortion of a 9-month fetus in a hotel room in the South Sumatra Province.

To “protect women,” deputy minister Ratna Susianawati stated that they would “continue to ensure that every layer of society receives education, information and knowledge regarding reproductive health for women, especially the threats that may be received as a result of illegal abortions.”

But providing information about the risks of illegal abortions also means giving easier access to abortion is out of the question. “The Indonesian State has clearly regulated and is present to ensure that abortion is prohibited in order to protect and guarantee the right to life and survival for every human being, including fetuses, who have not yet been born,” she added.

Around 73 million induced abortions take place worldwide each year, according to the World Health Organization: Six out of ten of all unintended pregnancies, and 29 percent of all pregnancies, end in induced abortion.

Country-specific estimates of unintended pregnancy and abortion incidence: a global comparative analysis of levels in 2015–2019, BMJ Global HealthEstimating the Incidence of Induced Abortion in Java, Indonesia, 2018, National Library of MedicineAbortion in Indonesia, Guttmacher Institute, 2008, PDF

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