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The Black Market of Abortion in the Arab WorldBy Ruba Shadoud Special to Salem-News.com
Murder, scandal or women’s rights?
(SALEM, Ore.) - Although relatively widespread in Syria, abortion remains an unspoken secret, brushed under the rug by a conservative society. People prefer neither to acknowledge nor talk about it, acting as if by turning a blind eye, the debate on abortion will simply go away.
Reality, however, is very different. A husband came to me, aged 50, with his wife, who was 41,” said one pharmacist in Aleppo. “They had a family of 10, and their economic conditions were really bad. He asked for abortion pills, saying that his wife was pregnant – by accident – and that they both did not want another child. I told him that as a pharmacist, I couldn’t give abortion pills except by medical prescription. He begged me, citing his financial difficulties, so I promised to help, calling up a friend who was a doctor. It cost them 400 SP ($8) to get rid of the baby, although she would have paid no less than 5,000 SP ($100) at a doctor’s office.”
Frowned upon by society, prohibited in some religions, costly, and difficult to legally justify completely, abortion operations in the Arab world often take place behind closed doors, in complete secrecy. Forward Magazine spoke to several hospitals, both private and public, in different cities across Syria, and all of them had one uniform answer, “we only carry out abortions when either the women’s life, or that of the fetus, is in danger.” Many hinted, however, to the abortion black market in Syria, pointing out that perhaps we should be looking there to find better answers.
Jihan, a woman who describes herself as “mature and educated,” went through an unsafe abortion operation. “It was at my own decision,” she noted. “My daughter was only two years old, and I was told I could not carry another baby while breast feeding.” The first doctor refused to carry out the abortion, she added, forcing her to go to an “under-the-table” abortion doctor, “who did not even ask me any questions, only set a date for the operation.” On the day of the operation, “I went to the clinic with my husband, and a man came up to us on bicycle, saying that he was the anesthesiologist,” Jihan explains. “He did not ask for any blood tests, and there was no oxygen supply in the clinic. I was not sure of how sterile the equipment was. Had I been in a different state of mind, I would not have continued.”
Murder, scandal or women’s rights?
Most countries in the region, Syria included, do not allow abortion. “Syria stands out with laws that deter citizens from seeking abortion, and harsh punishment for those who facilitate or commit abortion,” Fouad Awad, an attorney specialized in criminal law, said. “The law punishes women who commit abortion with jail terms that vary from six months to three years, and any person who facilitates abortion is punished with a prison term that varies between one to three years. If abortion leads to death of the woman, punishment becomes hard labor for four to seven years.”
Most black market abortions happen in so-called “Women Clinics” or among “qabila” (unlicensed midwifes). Those who do perform these illegal operations, justify their action saying that they do it to protect Oriental women from a social scandal, which might lead to her death.
Buthaina Khalil, director of the regional office of the Family Protection Association, was more concerned about the psychological, economic, and health hazards of abortion in such unsolicited and un-safe environments. “Whether miscarriage is accidental or provoked, repercussions are the same,” she said. “A woman falls under immense psychological pressure, and whatever future problem she faces, would get attributed to the abortion. If society found out, she would be seen as someone who has broken social norms. Economically, she often sells her belongings to pay for the abortion, or borrows money for the operation.”
Denying women abortions, though, leads to other undesirable results. “The case is more severe if a woman has been raped and needs to get rid of the fetus immediately. She hides her secret from everybody, her husband included, and resorts to primitive ways to get rid of the baby,” says Khalil. “Consuming a large amount of pills, black tea, or boiled water with aspirin. She might resort to burning Sodium, aggressive massage of the belly, or the ever-lasting technique: lifting heavy material during pregnancy, to forcefully terminate the fetus.”
With such extreme measures taken, some have taken the view of Nadim Abu Halaweh, a social scientist, who said, “Abortion is a human right, especially when the baby is conceived out of wedlock.” The severe health hazards that women put themselves through to avoid banishment from society definitely gives pause when thinking of forbidding it outright.
Religion, liberalism and baby ghost
For many Christians, the 5th Commandment is loud and crystal clear: “Thou shall not kill.” The bible reminds us on every occasion that God is master of life, and while some believe that life begins at birth, others feel that it begins at conception, making provoked abortion a deliberate and direct murder that is prohibited.
In Islam, scholars have also agreed that abortion is a red-line, some feeling that it is only admissible within the first forty days of pregnancy, others only if pregnancy will affect the life of the mother. Between conservative and liberal Syrians, a lot is happening. Some resort to abortion to run away from shame, others to continue their lives without an unwanted child standing in the way.
“The problem is that when a woman seeks abortion, she does not think of the future, only her present condition,” Suha, an artist who has had two abortions when she was young, says. “I wanted to study. My mother supported and helped me get an abortion. They told me that the operation was safe and the doctor was well-known.” Later, though, she would go through overweighing psychological trauma, seeing herself chased by ghosts for some time, while having to live with a husband who stopped talking to her in his rage at her killing the child.
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