In 2003 alone, at least 1.5 million illegal abortions were performed in countries located in the (“MENA”) Middle East and North Africa. Eighty percent of women living within the MENA region are citizens of countries that have restrictive laws against abortion. Only half of the female population in MENA resides in countries that allow abortion to save the life of the mother. The existence of restrictive laws on abortion is the main reason for the significant rise in the number of unsafe abortions in the Middle East and North Africa. Women’s rights activists and sympathizers in the Western world clamor for radical changes in national laws to legalize abortion. They cite the impact of U.S. laws that legalized abortion. However, closer scrutiny of the Roe v. Wade case will reveal that legalized abortion is not a popular decision in the United States (Balkin, 2008). Given the disparity in culture and legal framework between the United States and countries within the MENA region is it imprudent to believe that legalized abortion will become a reality in these countries. Therefore, it is important to look for alternative solutions. A practical approach is the use of concepts related to family values and family planning to develop backdoor strategies that will empower women. At the same time, it will compel a male-dominated society to consider women’s rights and provide better reproductive health care services. Also, the strengthening of family values and the implementation of family planning programs will significantly reduce the need for unsafe abortions.
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In 2008 alone, at least 21 million unsafe abortions were performed by illegal abortionists (World Health Organization, 2009). The problem starts with an unwanted pregnancy. Teenagers and young adults engaged in heterosexual intercourse are oftentimes faced with problems related to unwanted pregnancy. In this type of social dilemma, the young mother believes she has no choice other than to abort the baby. However, if they live in a conservative society, they are constrained by laws that say abortion is illegal. Advocates of women’s rights and activists fighting for women’s reproductive health care in agreement when it comes to the call for legalizing abortion in the Middle East and North Africa (Kelly & Breslin, 2010). The proposed solution is easier said than done. It is easy to understand the type of obstacles that prevent the legalization of abortion if one considers the history of abortion in the United States.
Abortions in the Middle East and North Africa: Reasons for the Significant Rise in the Number of Unsafe Abortions
Induced abortion is one of the most problematic types of reproductive health issues faced by Middle Eastern women and their respective families. Abortion is illegal in this region. The existence of restrictive laws against abortion is the main reason for the significant rise in the number of unsafe abortions in the Middle East and North Africa. Eighty percent of females living within the MENA region are residents of countries where abortion is illegal. Only fifty percent of the female population lives in countries wherein abortion is permitted to save the life of the mother. As a result, illegal abortionists abound, and their existence is fueled by the demand for induced abortion. Due to the illegal nature of the trade and the need to perform medical procedures in secret, the majority of the cases were performed by people with little or zero knowledge on how to perform appropriate medical procedures. As a result, illegal abortionists cannot ensure the survival of the mother (Potts, 1977).
Researchers in this area of inquiry are given a glimpse of the health problem when they discovered that abortionists are recruited from the ranks of nurses, midwives, medical students, pharmacists, and doctors. In poor countries in North Africa and remote regions in the Middle East, there is a great discrepancy in the ratio of physicians to patients. Thus, it is easy to understand why induced abortions are often performed by non-medical personnel.
According to the World Health Organization, in a region labeled as MENA or Middle East and North Africa, there were at least 1.5 million illegal abortions in 2003 alone (Dabash & Roudi-Fahimi, 2008, par. 1). Induced abortions were performed by ill-equipped and ill-trained personnel in unsanitary settings (Dabash & Roudi-Fahimi, 2008, par. 5).
Supporters of the feminist movement and women’s rights activists agree when they call for Western-style laws that will legalize abortion in the MENA region (Haghighhat-Sordellini, 2010). They cite statistics that say 98 percent of unsafe abortions occur in developing countries, especially in areas where abortion laws are restrictive (Dabash & Roudi-Fahimi, 2008, par.8). The clamor for change is justified by the high mortality rate of women who went through an induced abortion process at the hands of illegal abortionists. Women’s rights activists claim that in the United States less than 0.3% of women who went through legal abortion procedures experience complications that are severe enough to require hospitalization (Dabash & Roudi-Fahimi, 2008, par. 8). In other words, they believe that the legalization of abortion will reduce the number of unsafe abortions within the MENA region.
Changing Preferences; Changing Social Characteristics
Unwanted pregnancies and induced abortion is a global problem since the turn of the 20th century (Potts, 1977). Industrialized nations in the Western world responded to this problem by creating steps to legalize abortion. Students, researchers, and policymakers residing in the Western World clamor for the same social and political changes to occur in the Middle East and North Africa. However, the proposal to apply the same policies to this region is easier said than done. The Western World followed a different path to knowledge acquisition, and it is a process made easier by liberalization. The same thing does not apply to countries located in the Middle East and North Africa. Nevertheless, changing preferences are creating ripple effects that will eventually transform the way people perceive abortion in these countries. A practical approach is to study the success stories of countries that we’re able to improve the delivery of reproductive health care systems to their respective female population.
One of the key players in the transformation of Middle Eastern policies towards women’s rights and women’s reproductive health care Lebanese women. According to researchers in the field of women’s rights, Lebanon’s bureaucracy demonstrated its commitment to support women’s preferences when it comes to reproductive health. This commitment was manifested through the establishment of health institutions that enabled easy access to adequate health care delivery systems (Kelly & Breslin, 2010).
Landmark legislation ignited the change process in 1972; it was the time when Lebanon’s policymakers ratified the International Convention of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Due to the passage of related laws, the Lebanese government assured the right to adequate health care to its population (Kelly & Breslin, 2010).
Lebanese women continue to reap the rewards of programs that were initiated in the 1970s. One of the most recent victories was the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals. As a result, the Lebanese government spends more on healthcare-related expenses as compared to other Eastern Mediterranean countries (Kelly & Breslin, 2010).
It is also important to point out that a women’s rights movement took root in Lebanon (Kelly & Breslin, 2010). Lebanese women are active participants in non-government organizations and informal religious affiliations (Kelly & Breslin, 2010). Without a doubt, the radical improvements to Lebanon’s health care delivery service since the 1970s were impressive. However, it is imperative to point out that the most notable change in terms of women’s reproductive health issue was the decriminalization of the sale and advertising of contraceptives in 1983 (Kelly & Breslin, 2010).
When it comes to abortion, this medical procedure is still illegal in accordance to Lebanese laws. Under the Lebanese penal code, the administrator and the recipient of induced abortion are subject to between six months and seven years in prison (Kelly & Breslin, 2010). However, a minor victory was achieved from the perspective of women’s rights activists, because abortion is allowed when there is a need to save the life of the mother (Kelly & Breslin, 2010). Also, women can purchase contraceptives without the need to consult their husbands (Kelly & Breslin, 2010).
Winds of change had been detected in the MENA region. One of the most important was the initiative of the Syrian government to host the first regional conference in unsafe abortion and sexual health (Dabash & Roudi-Fahimi, 2008). In 2006, the Syrian government was the only country in the MENA region that conducted a national survey to understand the abortion practices in the country (Dabash & Roudi-Fahimi, 2008). It must be made clear that the MENA region has made great improvements when it comes to the delivery of reproductive health services for women (Haghighhat-Sordellini, 2010). The only exception is in countries like Morocco, Yemen, and Iraq (Haghighhat-Sordellini, 2010).
The clamor for change and the explicit desire to legalize abortion did not occur in a vacuum. The inspiration came from a landmark decision in the U.S. legal system, in the case called Roe v. Wade. When women’s rights activists refer to this landmark legal decision they describe it as an inevitable outcome of the evolution of democracy and human development (Gurtovnik, 2008). However, it must be made clear that the decision rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade is still considered in the present time as a controversial promulgation (Gurtovnik, 2008). In other words, many people are not in agreement with the decision of the Supreme Court justices. Besides, the landmark decision did not provide a blanket authority to allow all types of abortion. Abortion is allowed in certain states, and certain conditions must be considered before a physician can apply the said procedure. For example, abortion is not allowed if there is already a full-grown fetus in the mother’s womb (Gurtovnik, 2008). It is also difficult to ignore the obvious. American citizens are under a different set of rules. They also operate under a different social framework. The Western world is characterized by individualism and liberalization. The United States Constitution believes in the separation of Church and State. In most countries located within the Middle East, there is no concept known as the separation of Church and State (Haynes, 2009, p.214). In many countries inside the MENA region, Muslim laws apply.
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The controversy that surrounds the Roe v. Wade case and its implications to the U.S. legal system highlighted the fact that American citizens consider the value of the unborn fetus (Zinn, 2010). In a country that is exposed to liberal ideas and protected by a legal framework that defends individual freedom, it is interesting to note that legalized abortion is not a popular choice. One should consider the implication of this insight on conservative societies within the MENA region. It can be argued that legalized abortion that goes beyond the need to save a mother’s life or mental health will never gain a foothold within the MENA region. Therefore, it is imperative to look for alternative strategies.
The aggressive stance of feminists and women’s rights activists in the Western World may not work in the conservative societies of the Middle East and North Africa (Francome, 2015). If one will add the dynamics of religion and the absence of the concept that calls for the separation of Church and State, the obstacles to better reproductive health care services may appear even more insurmountable (Paul, Lichtenberg, & Borgatta, 2011). It is therefore prudent to consider other solutions. It is also important to consider solutions that veer away from a Western worldview.
Liberalization and individualism may backfire in the Oriental world. However, women’s rights proponents in the Middle East and North Africa can utilize shared beliefs about family values in order to work with the government and develop appropriate policies to encourage the delivery of high-quality reproductive health services to women (Rinker, 2013). In other words, it is time to look at the issue from a non-technical point of view, and begin to appreciate its different nuances based on human nature and social values that withstood the test of time. For example, it is important to highlight the key benefits of marriage, such as 1) interpersonal intimacy; 2) mutual assistance and protection; 3) the containment and direction of human sexuality into personally and socially productive purposes; 4) the reinforcement of the hard work of raising them with the rewards of sexual exchange; 5) the approval of publicly and communally established institutions; and 6) the protection of women from the asymmetries of male-female reproductive burdens (Browning, 2003, p. 240).
The proposal to strengthen marriage as an indirect solution to the worsening reproductive health care crisis in the Middle East and North Africa may not sit well with feminists and women’s rights activists (Friedman, 2006). However, they must reconsider their position after the realization that the circumstances that paved the way for the legalization of abortion in the United States is absent in the Middle East and North Africa (Nazir & Tomppert, 2005).
The strengthening of family values may provide a stop-gap solution to the crisis because prevention is better than the cure (Rinker, 2013). When a teenage girl requests for induced abortion, legalized abortion laws may provide her the appropriate medical care to save her life, however, the mere fact that she wanted an abortion is already a major setback in her young life. Supporters of the feminist movement and women’s rights activists are willing to do everything in order to legalize abortion all over the world; however, it is important to know the psychological and emotional impact of abortion.
A deeper appreciation of family values should not be interpreted as the triumph of male chauvinism. An enlightened view of this issue can lead to a backdoor strategy to strengthen women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Consider for instance the principle that calls for mutual assistance and protection for husbands and wives, and it will amplify the responsibility of husbands to take care of their wives. Consider the rewards of marriage, and teenagers will be inspired to refrain from pre-marital sex (Browning, 2003). It is easy to criticize government failures and forget to highlight the impact of individual failures, such as 1) the impact of nonmarital births; 2) teen pregnancies; 3) the impoverishment of women who have children without the support and protection of marriage; and 4) the associated increase of venereal diseases (Browning, 2003). In other words, the strengthening of family values does not only reduce the need for illegal abortions, but it mitigates the impact of other social problems as well. There is growing clamor to investigate alternative views especially when people see both sides of abortion. Induced abortion or legalized abortion is comparable to lethal weapons of destruction. There is nothing wrong with abortion if the purpose is to save the life of a mother. However, there is something unethical and immoral about it when it is utilized so that men can escape parental responsibilities (Lester, 1994). It is also problematic if families use it to solve an economic issue because they have no resources to feed another baby (Lester, 1994). Therefore, abortion should be a tool of last resort, and families should not use it because they are poor and have no means to take care of their children.
Aside from strengthening family values, an indirect solution is the establishment of family planning programs. According to the World Health Organization, recent data from Turkey and Tunisia revealed the sharp decline of abortion, and the reduced rates were attributed to the family planning initiatives by the government (Dabash & Roudi-Fahimi, 2008).
The clamor for legalized abortion reached a deafening roar when women’s rights activists and sympathetic groups discovered the high mortality rate caused by unsafe abortion practices. Women’s rights activists and supporters in the Western world view the barbaric nature of clandestine abortion clinics. They call for legalized abortion patterned after the legal framework in Europe and America. They draw inspiration from the landmark legal decision in Roe v. Wade. However, a scrutiny of U.S. laws will reveal that Roe v. Wade is a controversial decision, and the concept of legalized abortion is not a popular choice in the United States. Based on the difference in world view and cultural values of the United States and countries within the MENA region, it is imprudent to believe that U.S. laws on abortion will apply in the same region. The practical approach is to build up women’s rights using the successful formula applied in Lebanon. A similar women’s rights movement must take root. A practical approach is the use of concepts related to family values and family planning to develop backdoor strategies that will empower women. It is important to use these strategies to compel a male-dominated society to consider women’s rights and to provide better reproductive health care services. In addition, the strengthening of family values and the implementation of family planning programs will reduce the need for unsafe abortions.
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