From the Editors
[The following position paper was issued by Nasawiya on 28 September 2012.]
Women's Right to Abortion in Lebanon
Abortion laws have become an international political issue, resulting in continuing debates leading to social change and policy reforms throughout the years. Visible efforts to address abortion started in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) that was held in Cairo, in which the international community agreed on a common position regarding abortion, which stated in paragraph 8.25 of the ICPD Program of Action (PoA) that
All governments and relevant intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations are urged to strengthen their commitment to women’s health, to deal with the health impact of unsafe abortion as a major public health concern... In circumstances where abortion is not against the law, such abortion should be safe. In all cases, women should have access to quality services for the management of complications arising from abortion. (Center for Reproductive Rights, 2011)
Subsequently, in 1995, the Beijing Platform for Action reaffirmed the aforementioned agreement and recommend that countries should
Consider reviewing laws containing punitive measure against women who have undergone illegal abortion (Center for Reproductive Rights, 2011)
These conferences and subsequent international consensus documents that supported the removing of legal barriers to abortion reflected a global trend toward the liberalization of abortion law. Consequently, since 1994, 26 countries have removed some level of legal restriction on abortion, resulting in a total of 73 countries (constituting 61% of the world’s population) permitting induced abortion for a wide range of reasons (Center for Reproductive Rights, 2009).
For example, in 1996, South Africa amended its abortion law, which initially allowed abortion only to save a woman’s life and in cases of rape, incest, or fetal impairment, into a law permitting abortion without restriction as to reason during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and thereafter on numerous grounds (Center for Reproductive Rights, 2011). Observing research from countries where abortion laws have become more liberal, data shows that the number of unsafe abortions and related maternal morbidities and death has declined. Exemplifying the case of South Africa, the number of maternal deaths due to unsafe abortions has decreased by 90% from 1994 to 2001 (Dabash & Roudi-Fahimi, 2008).
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)* region, 55% of women (aged between 15-49) live in countries where abortion is prohibited except to save the woman’s life and 24% live in countries where abortion is permitted to preserve the woman’s physical or mental health, resulting in about 80% of women facing some form of legal barrier(s) to abortion (Dabash & Roudi-Fahimi, 2008). This leaves only about 20% of women in the region, ones who live in Turkey and Tunisia, with access to legal abortion in the first trimester without any restrictions (Dabash & Roudi-Fahimi, 2008).
Observing data produced from Turkey and Tunisia (only two countries in the region with non restrictive abortion laws) it suggests that the legalization of abortion resulted in safer abortions as well as a reduction in the number of abortions sought especially that their family planning programs have expanded. For example, in Turkey, the number of abortions dropped to 11% in 2003 from an 18% of pregnancies in 1993, while the number of women married using contraceptive methods, during that same period, increased from 34% to 42% (Dabash & Roudi-Fahimi, 2008).
With medical and scientific advances abortion has become a safe procedure when performed under trained medical supervision and high standards of care (Dabash & Roudi-Fahimi, 2008); however, till now, millions of women in the developing world go through unsafe abortions resulting in tens of thousands maternal deaths each year, accounting to about 13% of all maternal deaths in developing countries (WHO, 2007). This makes unsafe abortions a public health challenge that has been clearly neglected in our region and that needs to be addressed (Dabah & Roudi-Fahimi, 2008).
The wave of change hasn't reached Lebanon yet. Today under the Lebanese law, that was drafted in 1943 based on the French penal code at the time (Hessini, 2007) articles 539-546 state that abortion is illegal under all circumstances. It wasn’t until October 1969, that the Presidential Decree No.13187 allowed abortion only to preserve the woman’s life, if in danger (United Nations, 2001).
The law that is governed by eight articles prohibits the dissemination of information on abortion or methods used to facilitate it, the selling or accusation of objects that are designed to perform it, in addition to punishing any woman who induces abortion and any other person who aids her to do so (United Nations, 2001). Even with the woman’s consent, under the law, the person who performs an abortion is subjected to one to three years of imprisonment and the woman herself is subjected to six months to three years imprisonment.
There are no official statistics that accurately estimate the prevalence of abortion in the Lebanon; yet, the procedure is sought in the “black market” where it is performed in private clinics or at homes in unsafe environments mostly with no psychological support or post abortion care (Human Rights Council, 2010). According to statistics by World Health Organization (WHO), the estimated number of unsafe abortions (performed in unsanitary setting, by unskilled providers or both) in the Eastern Mediterranean Region (EMR) in 2003 was around 2,800,000 abortions, accounting for 12% of all maternal deaths in the region (World Health Organization, 2007).
This position paper was drafted in consultation with a number of young feminist activists who are part of Nasawiya, the feminist collective in Lebanon, and highlights their views on abortion rights in Lebanon. It also suggests a policy alternative to the current abortion law, promoting for abortion to be framed within a framework that respects women’s bodily autonomy and their right to make choices in relation to their reproductive rights.
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