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“My body, my choice” – Is there a right to safe abortion in the Arab World?

posted on: Nov 3, 2021

The World Abortion Laws Map, Source: Center for Reproductive Rights 

By: Isra Saleh / Arab America Contributing Writer

Women’s human rights, of which access to safe abortion is only one of many, have not progressed in the Arab World since the colonial period when French and British regimes supported pro-birth policies to increase the population of the colonized lands. By not addressing these colonial laws that criminalized abortion, they became entrenched in society and medical services for women desiring abortions have became further restricted.

The legal status of abortion indicates more than just where women and girls are legally permitted to decide whether to carry a pregnancy to term or not. It also reveals how likely a woman is to die from abortion, and whether women and girls are able to participate in public and political life. In large, tracking the legal status of abortion shows us where women and girls are treated with equity and are afforded the opportunity to direct the course of their own lives. Is this applicable in the Arab World?

Articles 322 and 323 of the Jordanian constitution penalize any person, by all means, who causes the miscarriage of a woman with her consent by one to three years imprisonment. Nonetheless, if the miscarriage or the means used to complete it leads to mortality the service provider will be sentenced for roughly 5 years at hard labor.

The Jordanian law does not only criminalize abortion but gives a free pass to Honor killing, a rising phenomenon in the country. Although Article 324 was initially meant to legalize abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape and incest, it fails to stop there.

It is estimated that 25 million unsafe abortions occur worldwide, and 97 percent of these abortions occur in resource-limited countries. It is no surprise that obtaining accurate data on abortion safety is almost impossible in the Arab World, as the procedure occurs under a cloud of secrecy

In 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) used indirect estimation techniques to determine the incidence of abortion in Western Asia and Northern Africa, regions with restrictive laws but where a large number of abortions took place illegally. The report estimates the total number of maternal deaths in Arab countries to be 14,000 in 2007.

Annual maternal deaths in Western Asia and Northern Africa in 2008, according to WHO report estimation. 

When it comes to abortion, Egypt is one of the most restrictive countries in the world. Egyptian law does not permit abortion on any grounds, and it does not allow survivors of rape or incest to exercise their right to terminate unwanted pregnancies – The law also punishes women who intentionally abort a pregnancy with imprisonment. Women in Egypt are living under an outdated law, adopted in the 1930s in an attempt to mimic French law at the time. While similar laws restricting abortion have been repealed in most countries, the law in Egypt remains unchanged.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the global alliance Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice (RESURJ), constantly calls on the Egyptian legislators to amend legal provisions on abortion to guarantee women access to safe abortion.

Iraqi women face the same restrictions. The law in Iraq does not permit abortion on any legal grounds either.

IRAQ.  Penal Code of 19 August 1969.

Whereas in Northern Africa, Tunisia is the only country that permits abortion. As a secular country Tunisian laws have legalized abortion for social reasons since 1973. The law allows abortion in medical institutions under the authority of physicians until the end of the first trimester for married and unmarried women without marital consent. Minors, however, must obtain the consent of one of their parents or of a legal tutor in order to access abortion services at a public facility. Contraception and abortion care are provided for free in such facilities. 

Legislators continue to deny women their sexual and reproductive rights, from Ecuador to Texas to the Arab World, abortion has been used as a tool to control women’s and girl’s bodies. They are bluntly saying that we have no choice over female bodies, holding back years of progression towards gender equality by limiting females to a sole traditional role: Procreation. 

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