Advocate Blog: Unpacking Abortion in Pakistan

This blog post is written by Purniya Awan (27 | Pakistan). Purniya is a Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies graduate from York University. She has been nominated as a Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum, is a Founding Member of a Pakistani legal blog, Courting The Law, and is also the Co-Founder of The Gender Stories (TGS), a project in Pakistan that aims to shift traditional perspectives of gender. She is currently working in Pakistan as a Publicist and as the Head of Social Media Marketing for two different companies. She is also a freelance journalist who frequently writes on feminist and human rights issues.  Purniya identifies as a feminist and believes in making this world a more inclusive place for all. 

Around the world, the legality of abortion is hotly debated. Whether abortion is easily accessible and safe is another concern. Let’s first make sure that we are all on the same page about what abortion means: Abortion is the termination of pregnancy so that it doesn’t result in the birth of a child. That being clear, women have the right to choose, at least theoretically. Practically speaking, universally binding laws or conventions such as The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which specifically highlight the rights of women, are not implemented successfully, if at all. However, just because there is a lack of accessible safe abortion clinics, it doesn’t mean that abortions don’t take place at all; abortions happen every day. The only difference is that they are conducted under dangerous circumstances, without the necessary and appropriate operating tools, causing severe harm to women, both psychically and mentally.

About 800,000- 900,000 abortions take place every year in Pakistan, with the majority of them being clandestine, putting the lives of women at major risk [1].

The current law in Pakistan only permits abortion to save the woman’s life, in order to preserve her physical and mental health. Under Section 338 and 338 B of the revised Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), abortion is not provided in cases of rape and incest, foetal impairment, economic or social reasons and is not available on request. Ironically, in a survey conducted with women who have gone through unsafe abortion processes, conclude that women’s reasons for terminating pregnancy were poverty, abnormal fetus, desire for a smaller family, premarital affairs, extramarital affairs and/or contraceptive failure [2]. In their research, the Pakistan Medical Research Council found that stigma attached to the procedure of abortion itself is so deeply engraved that health care providers are often the reason why abortions do not take place [3]. Many studies show that there is a lack of awareness about the procedure’s legality on part of legal professionals and medical service providers. There is obviously a lack of knowledge, awareness and access to family planning, the general lack of women’s power over their own bodies and a lack of access to appropriate medical professional services as there is a real fear of violence, finance, and the distance to be covered in order to get to the nearest hospital or clinic.

The absence of family planning is a major issue and maybe even one of the biggest catalysts for eventual abortion. In Pakistan, the percentage of married women who resort to terminating their pregnancy through abortion is relatively higher than that of single women [4]. Some reasons why contraceptives are not widely utilized amongst married couples are because contraceptives are expensive in many areas of the country, couples who want to use contraceptives don’t have access to them, husbands don’t want to use condoms, myths about contraceptive pills are prevalent, and religious excuses towards contraceptives.

The government, however, needs to step up its game to ensure that sensitivity workshops are held, especially in rural areas to educate people on the legality of the issue, which would in turn help to remove the stigma attached to abortion; it needs to ensure that affordable contraceptives are readily available in all areas of the country; ensure that there are clean and safe abortion clinics in close proximity of villages and that training in the provision of post abortion care should be standard for all levels of healthcare providers who are permitted to perform such services. It needs to make sure that improved provision of family planning services are available and implemented, which would likely lower the number of unwanted pregnancies substantially and thus reduce the number of clandestine abortions and the complications and deaths that often result from it. Finally, statistics need to be collected on the number of abortions conducted and the outcomes of the procedures.

Under the 1990 revision in the PPC in regards to abortions, the conditions for legal abortions depend of the development stage of the fetus. Since 1997, under certain circumstances, abortion is conditionally legal in Pakistan, to provide “necessary treatment”. Legally speaking, Section 338 of the PPC, which addresses the subject of abortion is quite vague and does not fully elaborate on important terms like “necessary treatment”, which is why the law continues to be criticized. An amendment to this section needs to be proposed in which all important terms are fully elaborated on and in which it is declared that abortion is not only a legal right for women but a human right in general.

 

[1] Guttmacher Institute. 2015. “Unintended Pregnancy and Induced Abortion in Pakistan”. Available at https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/unintended-pregnancy-and-induced-abortion-pakistan.
[2] Pakistan Medical Research Council. 2003. “Attitudes of Health Care Providers to Induced Abortion in Pakistan”. Available at http://www.jpma.org.pk/PdfDownload/224.pdf.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Pakistan Medical Research Council. 2003. “Attitudes of Health Care Providers to Induced Abortion in Pakistan”. Available at http://www.jpma.org.pk/PdfDownload/224.pdf.

Art: “El aborto es un derecho” by Karin Watson (20 | Chile) from Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights’ 2017 Abortion Rights Watchdog