Women who seek the procedure face religious and legal obstacles and are forced to turn to risky do-it-yourself methods.
We’ve been waiting to meet her for over a month. When we finally did, “the case” – as we’ve been referring to her over the phone – told us to call her Sahar.
She asked if she could cover her face with her headscarf, just to make sure no one would recognise her
Lighting was set up. Sahar triple-checked the frame before sitting for the interview at the Palestinian Family Planning and Protection Association (PFPPA) office in Hebron, where she spoke to us about her self-induced abortion.
“The most difficult thing was the bleeding. I was alone after midnight,” the 28-year-old mother-of-three said, describing the week-long suffering she underwent.
“It was painful, but I forgot the pain and was thinking about how my children would react and what will happen if they see me in that condition,” she told Al Jazeera.
‘I slipped and fell’
Sahar says she decided to terminate her pregnancy because the family couldn’t afford to bring up another child. Her husband, who doesn’t have a stable job as a worker inside Israel, didn’t know about her decision.
When he took her to hospital, she told him what she told the doctors: “I slipped and fell.”
But the truth, Sahar says, is that she hit her stomach, put weight on it and tried to reach into her body for the baby.
Despite being technically possible in limited cases when pregnancy endangers the mother’s life or when severe abnormalities are detected, abortion remains severally restricted under Palestinian law.
To have an abortion, a woman needs to get a fatwa. To get that, she needs the approval of an official panel of at least three doctors. Otherwise she and any aide can face jail time – even in cases of rape or incest.
“All religions ban abortion,” Sheikh Ibrahim Awadalla, assistant under-secretary for Fatwa, said.
“We can’t allow for the execution of God’s creation,” he told AlJazeera.
Awadallah said that if religious scholars were to allow abortion, they would indirectly encourage prostitution and incest.
Rights activists and public health experts disagree. “Women who want abortion will get an abortion – regardless if it’s criminalised or not.” Ayesha al-Rifai, a Palestinian policy and public health expert, told Al Jazeera.
“That’s why we have unsafe abortions… What’s worrisome in this is that the system allows incomplete abortion because women usually come to the service facility when they are bleeding due to incomplete abortion
“The law doesn’t forbid it and the healthcare providers will have to handle that,” she said.
Those who are pro-choice say that the harm reduction concept is insufficient in the Palestinian health system; their fight is to put it on the agenda.
Meanwhile, no exact figures are available on how many women were granted the Mufti’s approval to abort pregnancies.
Officials at Fatwa estimated that tens obtained approval last year. Yet there is no way to tell how many turned to Israel for abortion, where the laws are more permissive, or had the opportunity to terminate their pregnancies by going to clinics willing to take the legal risk.
According to recent studies that surveyed Palestinian women in refugee camps in 2007 and in Hebron in 2014, the induced abortion rates stood at 40 percent and 11 percent respectively.
Both figures are higher than the World Health Organization average of around 3 percent. Although neither study could be generalised, according to PFPPA experts, they are nonetheless indicative.
But it’s not just law that stands in the way. A tradition of blame, sin and guilt give women little choice.
Sahar says she contemplated abortion for weeks. She said she looked for answers online, which confused her even further. “I used to convince myself that the baby didn’t have a heartbeat – I wasn’t 40 days pregnant yet,” she said.
When asked if she had any regrets, Sahar said that she regrets how she’s done it most. Sometimes, she said, she thinks that she might have challenged God’s will.
Like most questions related to bioethical issues and religion, there seems to be several interpretations. Some Islamic theologians permit abortion on very tight grounds provided that the gestational age of the foetus doesn’t exceed 120 days, while others confine it to 40 days.
Most Christian denominations consider the foetus a living creature from the moment of conception; others may differ. The debate hence is about prioritising who and what will be protected by the law.
“There are spaces that the scholars and subsequently the legal body could move within – be fair to women and yet remain within the boundaries and the permissible spaces based on religion; we’re not dismissing that,” al-Rifai said.
“However, do we need to go to the strictest corner of this space? That’s the question. What we’re doing so far, legally, is that we’re sitting in the strictest, tightest corner of this permissible space and that’s not fair to women and their health.”
Al-Rifai says there’s a long way to go before women can have safe abortions. That’s why she says they started to focus on the religious establishment in a hope that somewhere down the line, social barriers stemming from what she refers to as “misinterpretations” of the religious texts would fade away to allow for women to make their own choices.