Morocco introduces reform to make abortion accessible

Friday 08/05/2015
Members of Moroccan parliament at a conference against illegal abortion (2012 file photo)

AGADIR - It was just 7am and Hoda was walking alone to a clinic in the Moroccan coastal city of Agadir. She had skipped break­fast: the Senegalese doctor had told her that the abortion would be better done on an empty stomach.

Four months pregnant by a man who did not want to marry, Hoda said she couldn’t have the child in a society that sees unwed mothers as little better than prostitutes. But as she approached the illegal clinic, something was clearly wrong.

Police escorted a handcuffed doctor out of the clinic as a crowd gathered. Inside, a woman had just died from a botched abortion.

“She had haemorrhaged, there was blood everywhere,” recalled Hoda, who spoke on condition that her last name was not used because of the sensitivity of the situation.

An estimated 600 to 800 abor­tions are performed every day in Morocco, where the operation is illegal except in cases where there is a threat to the mother’s health. Although the procedure is widely practiced underground, the subject has long been taboo.

Years of activism, however, cul­minated in March in a new official move to reform the law to reduce the number of illegal abortions by making operations more accessible.

“Morocco’s penal code on abor­tion is very restrictive, the law is not fair to women,” Moroccan Health Minister El Houssaine Louardi told the Associated Press. “It’s out of date and doesn’t take into account the reality that Moroccans live in these days. There is an urgent need to revise this law.”

With the exception of Tunisia, where the procedure was legalised in 1973, abortion in the Arab world is mostly illegal except in cases of foetal malformation or danger to the mother’s health — though in most countries there is an informal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that makes the practice widespread. Re­form in Morocco could have wide repercussions for women around the region.

In Morocco, calls for reform were sparked in December when Dr Chafik Chraibi, head of obstetrics at Rabat’s Maternity hospital and part of an organisation fighting against illegal abortions, was fired after he gave an interview to a French TV programme in which he con­demned the laws that forced the practice underground.

A rare debate among intellectu­als and political party leaders fol­lowed, culminating in Chraibi’s reinstatement and Moroccan King Mohammed VI asking religious scholars and justice officials to come up with ways to revise the law to reduce the number of illegal abortions.

Chraibi said his activism came out of years of working on hospital wards, when women and girls who tried to give themselves abortions would be admitted horribly injured and near death.

For Morocco’s rich and the mid­dle class, abortions are easily ac­cessible, costing $220-$1,100 in hospitals and clinics. But the poor resort to more “traditional” meth­ods, such as poison or sharp ob­jects.

Veteran activist Aicha Ech-Chen­na, who runs an organisation that gives job training to single mothers and provides daycare, scoffs at the objections of the religious.

Many of the young women at her centre came from religious back­grounds and were persuaded by their boyfriends to enter into “cus­tomary” marriages that supposed­ly allow them to have sex but have no legal standing.

Chraibi said he wanted the new law to broaden the definition of the mother’s health to include psycho­logical, physical and social aspects, so that cases such as rape, incest, poverty, age and other circum­stances could be considered.

Religious scholars and the Justice Ministry could well come back to the king with a much more restric­tive reform than either Chraibi or the health minister have proposed.

Prominent imam Mustapha Ben­hamza has cautioned against calls for abortion in cases of foetal mal­formation and the moderate Islam­ist Party that heads the governing coalition is also reportedly against increasing access to abortion.

Hoda changed her mind and decided to have her child after what she saw in the Agadir clinic. But she had to leave Agadir for Morocco’s commercial capital of Casablanca and has had very little contact with her family, who said she has shamed them. “My family hasn’t accepted my son,” she said. “To this day, they tell me never to bring him by.”

(The Associated Press)