My husband left me to die in the hospital. While I waited in agonising pain, my family was running around looking for medical assistance. I was a few weeks pregnant with his child. Around two months into our marriage he had started to torture me both physically and emotionally. However, the present abandonment was the tipping point after which I decided to terminate the pregnancy. This was stated by Naheed, a 20-year-old woman from Multan who underwent an abortion.
In Pakistan, abortion is mired in myriad social and legal issues. It is not only illegal but also an extremely taboo subject. However, despite being a criminal offence, abortions take place across the country in the most dangerous and unsafe environments.
Various news reports suggest a widespread prevalence of abortion across the country — since it is illegal there is no official count but experts suggest the number to be in the hundreds of thousands.
Most abortions in Pakistan take place due to unplanned pregnancies, divorce, pregnancies out of wedlock or the child being a female. According to the country’s law, such cases do not qualify for permissible abortion as Islam allows it only if the mother’s life is in danger.
Khadija Ali, a high court advocate, stated that Pakistan Penal Code’s Section 338 stipulates that abortion can only be carried out if the mother’s life is in danger — otherwise it is a punishable offence. If an abortion is conducted with the mother’s consent, it carries a three-year jail term, while the sentence is 10 years if it is against the woman’s wishes. Explaining how the law is applied, Ali shared that if a man divorces his wife and she returns to her parents’ home only to be found pregnant and later has a miscarriage, abortion or does not deliver a baby after nine months, the husband files a case for getting an abortion done.
Sex education is a subject missing in the country’s various curricula. Most married couples are also not open to family planning efforts. So even when the government launches frequent family planning campaigns along with visits by trained lady health workers, including provision of free or subsidised contraceptives, the overall response, particularly among the poor working class, is least forthcoming.
Eventually, if an abortion becomes necessary, those who cannot afford doctors’ fees or deal with the stigma attached to it usually end up in the hands of untrained midwives, quacks or home remedies. Very few medical professionals are available in such circumstances in any case.
Though trained midwives are high in number, their ‘training’ is mostly hereditary and not professionally certified. The most common method they use for inducing abortion is through medication or insertion. “My sister-in-law died due to a medicine given by a midwife. She had had five children and could not afford to have more,” shared Sana, a domestic worker in Lahore.
According to Nighat*, a gynaecologist from Multan, “our law and religious issues force women to opt for such life-threatening methods. There is no guarantee of sterilised instruments being used in such emergency situations. Women are often brought with excessive bleeding or ruptured organs, and often it is too late.”
Women usually have no say when it comes to their bodies in general.
“No matter what class a woman comes from, she has no right over her body. She cannot decide if she wants to get pregnant, or plan the nest kids or even take birth control pills without the husband or family’s approval. In cases of unwanted pregnancies, they cannot take decisions. Someone from the family has to sign the documents to undergo abortion in a hospital,” Nighat shared further.
Along with medical complications and the law, religion and culture also play a major role in abortions. Women go through trauma, family pressure and stigma if an abortion is discovered to have been carried out.
Laiba Zainab, a journalist talking about trauma and stigma, underscored that “when a woman goes through the painful procedure [of an abortion], she can never really get over it. Many times she goes into a state of denial which adversely impacts her life. She may needs psychological help too to get over it.”
Rashida*, a resident of Peshawar who is around 40 years old, shared her horrifying experience with Sabaat. She took the step as her partner had disowned the baby since it was out of wedlock. “It was a dark, dingy room with an uncovered charpai (bed) in the centre and a table in the corner. The procedure lasted about 45 minutes and was the most painful experience of my life. Maybe giving birth is not as painful as aborting a child and that too without any precautions by a traditional midwife.”
While abortion is a controversial issue in many countries, societal acceptance, even if done grudgingly, is helping women find a safe and convenient place which saves many lives and allows them to remain productive members of society.
*Names changed to protect identity