Unveiling the taboo: Confronting the issue of abortion

4 Mins read

With each abortion, a woman dares to navigate uncharted waters: It is a choice rooted in honesty, courage, and a relentless pursuit of personal well-being and autonomy.

In a world where women’s autonomy and reproductive rights continue to be fiercely debated, one topic stands out as a symbol of bravery, choice, and empowerment: women’s abortion.

It is an intensely personal decision that tends to challenges societal norms, ignites impassioned debates, and exposes the stark reality of women’s lived experiences.

Abortion, as an individual choice, speaks volumes about a woman’s agency over her own body, her aspirations, and her determination to forge her own path amidst a world that often seeks to control and restrict her choices.

little girl holding a banner
Young Girl advocating for abortion rights [Flickr: Victoria Pickering]

Abortion is steeped in social stigmatisation in South Asian societies. Unmarried women, those from conservative families, or those belonging to socially marginalised communities face heightened judgment and ostracisation for seeking abortion.

The fear of shame, rejection, and social repercussions often forces women into silence, minimising their access to adequate support services, both during and after the abortion process. Many South Asian countries have restrictive abortions laws that limit access to safe and legal procedures.

“The Concept of abortion is generally haraam (forbidden) across all sects of islam, except in specific circumstances, such as when the mother’s life is in danger. The decision is often guided by scholars’ interpretations of Islamic teachings and jurisprudence,” says Dr Madiha from Pakistan.

South Asian societies often have deeply ingrained cultural and religious beliefs that discourage or prohibit abortion. These beliefs may then influence personal decisions, community attitudes and even healthcare provider’s biases, making it harder for women to access non-judgemental and unbiased reproductive healthcare services.

“More than social and cultural influence over the topic of abortion in the asian society, the specifications mentioned in the islamic religion are clear and concise. Abortion is strictly haraam in Islam and hence there is little room for individual perception in this matter,” said Dr Sarah, 32, a practicing surgeon from Pakistan.

“However due to the nature and complexity of the issue at hand, the debates have always been endless with little or no conclusion to this topic.”

Family dynamics can contribute to feelings go guilt and shame associated with abortion, which is strongly present in South Asian culture.

Sarah, a 24 year-old South Asian woman living in the UK states “living in an extended family is the given norm of being brown but at the same time it also implies that keeping certain things private which can be challenging, as result telling my family was never going to be an option for me and so I knew my home would be from providing me with shelter until all this was over.”

women holding her child
Women often have no choice once they become pregnant [Flickr: The World Bank]

Choosing to have an abortion as an unmarried or young women can lead to social ostracisation from friends, family or even the broader South Asian community.

This stems from the belief that unmarried women should uphold the societal norms and maintain their virginity until their marriage.

As a result this leads to the stigmatisation of women labelling them as “morally deviant” due to their disobedience to the societal Norms and cultural expectations surrounding premarital sex and pregnancy.

According to the National Library Of Medicine “unmarried pregnant women are heavily shamed by society and in most cases are shunned even by their own friends and family. Hospitals do not also cater to such women hence the last resort for them is illegal criminal abortion. Lately, there has been a rise in the incidence of unsafe abortions among unmarried Pakistani university students which has led to their demise.”

While speaking about the stigma attached to South Asian women getting an abortion, it is important to note the impact it can have on a women’s health.

Facing an unintended or unwanted pregnancy is already distressing due to the reasons such as financial constraints, relationship issues or personal circumstances.

“In cases where termination of pregnancy is in question for genetic abnormalities in the fetus, in contrast to western society-the intervention may be looked down upon. The mother is expected to carry on the pregnancy with total disregard to the future challenges faced and the care needed in such cases,” said Dr Madiha.

“That in turn negatively impacts the mental health of the expecting mother because the burden of responsibility influenced the merits of the decision to continue, with the medical conditions on a back bench and the decision being heavily affected by the societal norms.”

women protesting
Women protesting against the stigma and for access to safer abortion [Flickr: Steenaire]

One such case is of a female university student whose dead body was left outside a hospital in Lahore; the post mortem report showing that the woman had died due to heavy bleeding during an unsafe abortion.

Despite being educated, the shame and stigma associated with her pregnancy prevented her from seeking professional help which could have prevented her death.

In many South Asian countries there is a shortage of accessible and high quality healthcare services for safe abortions, even within the legal framework.

Despite aborting being legal in India since the introduction of of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971, around 10 women die everyday due to unsafe abortion.

women staring
Her eyes tell a story words can’t capture [Flickr: The World Bank]

An American research organisation that studies sexual and reproductive health and rights around the world found that in India, Nepal,Bangladesh, the proportion of illegal abortions ranges from 58 to 90 per cent.

Women tend to be more vulnerable, both physically and financially when they pursue illegal abortions. A study of 56 women which were admitted for post abortion care to government hospitals present in Sri Lanka found that they delayed seeking medical care due to the fear of being reported to the police.

There are organisations present in South Asian countries to provide counselling and assistance for women considering or undergoing abortion such as Marie Stopes international that operate in several South Asian countries including Bangladesh, Indian, Nepal and Pakistan or the Ipas, an international organisation that works to expand women’s sexual and reproductive rights including access to safe abortions which also operates in the same South Asian countries.

While such organisations are present to provide supporting comfort to women, abortions still remains complex societal issue.

Efforts should be directed towards challenging the stigma associated with abortion, debunking myths and misconceptions, and fostering empathy and understanding.

By empowering women, providing comprehensive information, and advocating for their reproductive rights, it is possible to create an environment where women can make informed decisions about their own bodies without societal pressures or feelings of shame and guilt.

Featured image by The World Bank via Flickr CC

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