Like many other women health related issues, abortion is another which is neither discussed openly nor gets the attention or focus that it merits. Experts say the reasons behind this scenario are both religious and social.
As per several media reports, majority of doctors don’t do abortion operations citing religious teachings, social norms and personal beliefs. And this is leading to severe health issues for women.
Although abortion is allowed in Pakistan under specific circumstances, first if the women’s life is in danger and secondly, before the formation of the organs of the fetus, but despite that doctors largely refuse to do abortions. This forces the women to consult quacks, midwifes and illegal clinics.
As per a 2012 report by New York-based Population Council, Pakistan has the highest abortion rate i.e., 50 abortions for every 1,000 women aged between 15 and 44. This is four times high than the U.S. Commenting on the situation Guttmacher Institute said: “The procedure is legal only in very limited circumstances.”
According to Pakistan Population Council head, Zeba Sather, abortion is allowed at the time of need. “However, the law doesn’t elaborate the term need,” she said.
According to Sather’s research, most of the women are married and belonged to unprivileged section, hence, without any medical information and access to contraceptives. “We found to our surprise that most of the women had more than three children, maybe as many as five,” she said.
According to Dr. Tariq, who works at a reproductive clinic in Rawalpindi, most female patients don’t have access to long-term birth control methods. And the reason behind is no permission from mother-in law or husband.
As per latest state-sponsored survey, “just 34 percent of married Pakistani women use contraception and only 25 percent rely on modern methods.” Dr. Tariq further said that many of these women have seven to eight children and don’t have access to family planning services. “The result? Unwanted pregnancies.”
Noting the abovementioned statistics, observers reiterate that family planning program of Pakistan is in shambles. They say that it is due to lack of knowledge, religious beliefs and cultural norms that the country is now among top five most populated countries in the world. It has led to shortage of land, water, low space in schools, congested streets and unemployment.
Director General of Pakistan’s Population Program, Abdul Ghaffar Khan said, “Pakistan’s high abortion and low contraception rates reflect a family planning policy in shambles.” Khan added that the whole project is bureaucratic mess as family planning is the job of federal government, but national policy approval this program had languished for years. In 2011, the program was passed to provincial governments, but family planning is not part of provincial health ministry. “Instead, it is part of a different office, which has long been underfunded and neglected.” Khan asserted.
Further, the family planning program in Pakistan largely runs with the fund from United States. Experts noted that the Trump administration caused a major hit to the program, when it put a gag on the funds. Although the current Biden government has reinstated the funds, but still the organisations in Pakistan are facing serious issues in this regard.
Like a lot of other issues, a lack of common sense is the main problem here too, observers maintain. Activists urge the people, especially the men, to understand that a woman is not a baby producing machine, and realise that giving birth leaves a very heavy toll on women’s body and it needs rest and break to rehabilitate.
Observers also point towards the patriarchal wish of having a son in our society, which to many experts is the most basic and vital reason behind unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions. Observers reiterate that because most want a son not a daughter, hence if a couple already has daughters and fear with another, they will go for abortion, illegally.
Activists and rights advocates maintain that all we need is common sense, an understanding of the economic condition, and wellbeing of wives and the issue can be resolved. It might appear straightforward, but the ongoing ground realities push analysts to be less optimistic about overcoming the resistance to much needed change in how the society views and prioritizes women’s health.