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As the US Steps Back on Abortion, Here’s the Situation in the MENA Region
Ayeesha (L) briefs women on how to answer calls on a hotline dedicated to abortion, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Dec. 17, 2018. More than 2 million women are thought to have secret, illegal abortions in Pakistan annually. (Abdul Majeed/AFP via Getty Images)

As the US Steps Back on Abortion, Here’s the Situation in the MENA Region

88% of women in the Middle East and North Africa live in countries with restrictive abortion laws

The US Supreme Court abolished the constitutional right to abortion on Friday, leaving the country’s federal and state legislatures to decide on the issue. In the Middle East and North Africa, on the other hand, few have ever seen legalized abortion.

Among 27 countries and territories in the MENA region, abortion is generally legal in just four of them.

In Israel, said Alisa Eshet Moses, a therapist and expert on gender equality issues in Israel and India, abortion is completely legal if the woman meets at least one of the following criteria: She is unmarried; younger than 18, the legal age of marriage; over age 40; the pregnancy was conceived under illegal circumstances such as rape, statutory rape, or incest; the fetus has a birth defect; or if it represents a risk to the physical or mental health or the mother.

The abortion must be approved by a Pregnancy Termination Committee. Eshet Moses noted, however, that the vast majority of the applications are approved.

She added that since 2014, abortion up to the age of 33 can be paid for under the state-funded basket of health services.

“I also should say we have the morning-after pill,” Eshet Moses points out, available in any drugstore.

But there is still room for improvement, Eshet Moses said. “We need to cancel the committees,” she told The Media Line.

Turkey is another country where abortion is legal. However, Canan Güllü, president of the Federation of Women Associations of Turkey (TKDF), told The Media Line it is not really accessible to everyone.

Abortion is legal up to 10 weeks into pregnancy, she said.

Despite this, Güllü continued, “abortion cannot be obtained in every hospital.”

Abortions are mostly performed in private hospitals, and rarely in public ones, according to the Turkish news outlet Duvar.

Güllü added that access to birth control is also limited.

“Since contraceptives are expensive, many women cannot buy them. Also, since it is forbidden to talk about sex, women and men do not know about preventive measures,” she said.

Güllü added, “We [at TKDF] and women’s organizations are working on preventing violence and giving a voice to women.”

In Cyprus, abortion is also fully legal until the 12th week of a woman’s pregnancy or the 19th week in the case of rape. However, abortions are rarely performed in the island nation’s state hospitals since it has a natalist policy. Most of the abortion procedures are performed in private clinics, limiting the accessibility for women in a less favorable socioeconomic situation.

Tunisia is the only other MENA country where abortion is generally legal.

The procedure is permitted in the first trimester of pregnancy without any need for authorization. After that, an abortion can be performed only if the fetus has an abnormality or risks the mother’s health.

In the rest of the countries in the region, abortion is only permitted in the case of risk to the mother’s health or fetal abnormalities. Otherwise, it is criminalized.

Using a relatively narrow definition of the MENA region, the Tunisia-based Tawhida ben Cheikh group for research and action on women’s health found that 80% of women in the region live in countries with restrictive laws on abortion. According to The Media Line’s broader definition of MENA countries, fully 88% of women in the region live in countries where abortion is highly restricted.

Fatima, an international relations specialist from Bahrain, spoke about the issue in the Gulf countries. She asked that her family name be withheld.

Women who do not meet the restrictive criteria indicated above and who seek an abortion must either undergo the procedure illegally or obtain abortion pills, which is also punishable by law, or travel abroad to abort legally, she told The Media Line.

This means only privileged women have access to safe abortions.

She added that to the best of her knowledge, activism on the issue is almost nonexistent in the Gulf. “There are no known organizations that fight for making abortion legal in the Gulf region,” Fatima said.

In Iraq, in contrast, several organizations advocate for women’s rights including abortion, said Semeen Gul, a lawyer from the Kurdistan region who specializes in international law and human rights.

She noted, however, that abortion in her country is mostly obtained clandestinely, which is very risky for the life of the woman.

Eleven percent of maternal deaths in the region are caused by complications from illegal abortions performed in unsanitary settings or by unskilled providers, or both, the World Health Organization reports.

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