By Haya Khan:
“Induced abortion is a widely used method of preventing unwanted births in Pakistan” says Dr. Zeba Sathar, Country Director for Population Council Pakistan. This statement shows that the violation of abortion law in Pakistan is widespread. According to research by the Pakistan Population Council it is said that 197,000 women are being treated yearly for abortion related complications.
The deaths, serious health complications and long-term disabilities that result from unsafe abortion procedures place an enormous burden on Pakistan’s health care system, as well as on the women themselves, their families and their communities. A national survey of public sector facilities estimated that about 200,000 women were hospitalized for abortion complications in 2002. Many other women suffered complications but never reached hospitals.
Abortion and the Pakistani Society
Women here usually do not admit that they resort to forced abortions because of its illegality of in Pakistan. Current law permits abortion only to save the woman’s life or, early in pregnancy, to provide “necessary treatment.” Because almost all abortions take place illegally and in secret, information about abortion in Pakistan comes largely from studies of women hospitalized for abortion complications. While the evidence is limited, it is clear that post-abortion complications account for a substantial proportion of maternal deaths in Pakistan.
Generally, people in communities oppose the idea of abortion, however when the issue comes on them, they justify their otherwise act and say that they were helpless. In reality, women who want to get abortion done do not care about the factor of social unacceptability, but are afraid to reveal the results in public. Many studies have been conducted where women were asked about the reasons for opting toward induced abortion and why not contraceptives, most of the interviewed were too reluctant to talk about it as they know that they have committed an immoral and prohibited act.
Legal Status of Abortion in Pakistan
In 1990, the Pakistan government revised the colonial-era Penal Code of 1860 with respect to abortion. The revisions sought to conform better to Islamic teachings regarding offenses against the human body. Therefore, it has been clearly stated that abortion is illegal in Pakistan, and whoever causes a woman to abort her child whose organs have not been formed yet, is likely to be imprisoned for 3 years. If it has been done without the consent of woman, the punishment is detention up to 10 years. Moreover, if the abortion takes place once the limbs of the child have been formed, the punishment at this stage is seven years of imprisonment. Before or after formation of the organs, abortions are permitted only to save the woman’s life or in order to provide “necessary treatment.”
Why do Pakistani Women have Abortions?
When such stringent laws do exist about abortion in Pakistan, why do we see so many women getting their child terminated? Unintended pregnancy is the primary reason for high abortion rate in Pakistan. In addition, studies have shown that poverty and having had all the children they want or could actually afford is also a chief reason for aborting a child.
Besides, one of the most significant factors for higher rate of abortion in rural women is illiteracy. They do not know about contraceptives and even if they do, there is a lack of knowledge of its usage, causing them to resort to induced abortion which has serious negative health implications.
Furthermore, there are issues associated with cultural acceptability of contraceptives and most importantly, women fearing that their husbands would disapprove their use. Pakistani culture is inherently conservative, thus has opposing views regarding abortion.
Notably, in rural areas the non-availability of family planning services lead to abortions. There is no beforehand planning between the couple and in absolute majority cases, rural women feel shy with their husbands and cannot talk openly about having children. Some might experience increased expenditures due to more children and therefore, they might consider it as a not needed pregnancy.
A study conducted in a village in rural Punjab indicated the different choices made by the women of that village concerning unwanted pregnancies as mostly rural women are facing problems with feeding their children and are involved in daily wage labour tasks. I have been talking about unwanted pregnancies; the distinction is that in rural areas, people do not clearly know the difference between ‘unwanted pregnancy’ and ‘untimed pregnancy’. Unwanted pregnancy is that the couple did not want the child at all, whereas untimed pregnancy is when the couple realizes that it is not the right time to have a child, as it might be too early.
Unsafe abortion in Pakistan contributes significantly to serious health consequences in the form of illness and death. There may be excessive blood loss leading to anaemia, incomplete abortion, removal of uterus causing permanent infertility, bacterial infection, etc. Women have a fear of side effects of using contraceptives if they get to know about it as well as there are religious concerns because in accordance to Islamic principles, abortion is equal to committing a murder.
Abortion also causes long-term anxiety, mental stress and torment to the mother thinking that if she had not carried out abortion, how would have her child looked like and what type of personality would the child have. It creates mental trauma and hassle in their minds.
These type of troubles occur very less in upper classes as compared to the lower strata because they have knowledge of contraceptives, know how to use them, have an access to family planning programs and women discuss the issue clearly with their husbands.
Pakistan in Comparison with Indonesia
Like Pakistan, abortion is also illegal in Indonesia, and is only permissible if the girl has been subject to sexual violence. In the case of pregnancies which are a result of pre-marital affairs, it is unlawful since then the former is with the consent of women. The head of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), the main clerical body of Indonesia said that in cases of women getting raped, and pregnancy the result of it, abortion till the fortieth day of pregnancy is desirable. This is because according to a hadith, at the fortieth day the unborn child in the womb obtains its soul, hence making abortion forbidden after that day.
Availability of family planning services for the community at large, relation between men and women and variation of opinions and choices between different rural and urban women tell us about the desperation of getting the abortion done. Many Pakistani women are playing with their health and even their lives to avoid births that they cannot afford or do not want. “Helping them prevent unintended pregnancy and supporting them in achieving their fertility goals would significantly reduce maternal morbidity and mortality and the associated costs to families, communities and society as a whole” (Guttmacher Institute, 2009).