By Shefa’a Qudah
Collage illustration by Yasmine Nasser Diaz (source image Taryn Simon)
Translations by Hiba Moustafa
This article is an outcome of a writing workshop conducted by My Kali magazine.
“I was waiting for her to die inside me so that I could have an abortion. I begged them to spare me this suffering, but they refused.” This is how Sarah (pseudonym) summed up her experience with abortion. She got pregnant with a girl within her first two years of marriage, but, by the end of the second trimester, the physicians expected the baby would die. This warranted abortion, but physicians said they wouldn’t be able to do this until the baby’s heart stopped beating because of Jordan statutes and “medical ethics” that criminalize abortion.
Sarah was in pain a few days longer as she waited for the baby’s heart to stop, and then she had the procedure. She looked for an illegal way but feared prosecution. Her hands were tied: “I was so scared that something terrible was going to happen to me.”
According to Articles 321 – 325 of Jordanian Penal Code No. 16 of 1960 and its amendments, abortion is a punishable offence whether it is performed by the mother herself or by another person, with no exceptions 1.
Article 321 states that “A prison sentence for a period of six (6) months to three (3) years shall be imposed upon any woman who aborts by using, or allowing another person to use, any instrument to that effect.” This raises questions about the law’s entitlement to impose such a punishment on women merely for having an abortion and the duration fo the sentence; three years, or even six months, is not a short period for a woman to spend in prison following such a procedure.
This law comes from French colonial laws 2, which imposed many restrictions on abortion. In fact, most abortion laws in the region were punitive when French and British colonial regimes supported pronatalist policies to increase the colonies’ populations 3. This, too, raises questions about celebrating independence each year and living in the current century, yet remaining in the shadow of laws that are essentially an extension of the colonial regimes from which we gained our independence. But, it’s as if successive governments have absorbed these laws without examination or investigation into their origins or grounds. If the criminalization of abortion were about procreation to increase the population of the colonized and cheap labor, why does it persist today?
Remarkably, Article 12 of Public Health Law permits abortion if the pregnant woman’s health is at risk or if pregnancy was life-threatening, provided that it is done in a hospital with the written consent of the woman at risk. If she is unable to give written or verbal consent, such a consent may be given by her husband or guardian with a certificate by two qualified and experienced licensed physicians, asserting that the procedure is necessary to preserve the pregnant woman’s health or life. However, the hospital keeps the woman’s name, information, and the physicians’ certificate for 10 whole years 4, as if it were a sensitive operation that requires many procedures. This way of handling abortion may scare women from taking action; even if the law permits it, one is made to feel as if she were about to enter a battle scene and must say goodbye to everything and everyone. Article 21 of Jordan Medical Constitution issued by Jordan Medical Association affirms the above Article, stating that physicians are not permitted to perform optional abortions by any means unless the continuation of the pregnancy would imperil the woman’s health, and under other specified conditions 5.
we heard from other married and unmarried women’s experiences with abortion and their fear of being found out as if they committed some crime. This fear prompted some of them to have unsafe abortions.
However, the law does not take into account the peril that pregnancy may pose to a woman’s psychological health, which is especially important for women having a baby. Some may say it’s her duty to bear it, assuming that it was her choice to get pregnant. But what if it was a mistake the spouses did not intend, or happened following a fleeting affair? Does she have to live with the result of this mistake for her entire life if she can abort him/her? Would the baby enjoy a healthy and good life if the woman were forced to have him or her? I think this would be unlikely. Kids need love and warmth, and it is wrong to force women to give birth just for the sake of forcing them.
Let’s talk about abortion within the first 90 days of pregnancy, i.e. before a soul is breathed into the embryo or before its heart beats. If we considered abortion after the heartbeat starts as killing an unborn child, on what grounds can one call for punishment for abortion in the first 90 days? It seems, one can say, that women’s bodies belong to the state, and that a woman will be punished with imprisonment if she decides to make her own decision regarding her baby – she has no right to decide without the state’s approval.
Article 322 states that “A prison sentence for a period of one (1) year to three (3) years shall be imposed upon any person who uses any method for abortion with a woman’s consent. Should the abortion, or the method used to perform such an abortion, lead to the death of the woman, the perpetrator shall be sentenced to temporary hard labour for a period of no less than five (5) years.” Article 325 states that “The penalty shall be increased by one-third (1/3) if the perpetrator of the offenses provided for in this Chapter is a physician, a surgeon, a pharmacist or a midwife.” It seems that both articles aim to intimidate any physician who would try to perform an abortion, for s/he would be punished if s/he tried to perform it, and s/he would also be punished if the woman died, making punishment unavoidable. Again, the State claims control over women’s bodies and those willing to aid them in making their own choices, forcing people into riskier situations. Perhaps this is why illegal abortions are so expensive, and why physicians fear performing abortions even when they are legal and pregnancy poses a threat to the mother’s life, as was the case of Nora.
Nora (pseudonym) got pregnant after twelve years of marriage and two children. The pregnancy was unplanned and happened though she was on the pill. She had chronic infections that would threaten her life should the pregnancy continue. She brought her medical reports to a gynecologist to prove her health was in danger, but the gynecologist refused to carry out the abortion. She eventually had to buy Cytotec from outside Jordan because it is banned here; six pills cost her 150 JOD. The abortion caused Nora severe pain, which she swallowed because she didn’t want any physician to know that she had aborted the pregnancy or to be punished by law. “I have two children, and if the pregnancy had continued, I would have been paralyzed or dead. Who would take care of them then?”
Nora is not the only one. While working on this report, we heard from other married and unmarried women’s experiences with abortion and their fear of being found out as if they committed some crime. This fear prompted some of them to have unsafe abortions.
Pushing Women towards Death
Abeer Annab, the spokeswoman of the Jordanian Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and member of the Jordan Medical Association, said that there have been demands to expand the parameters around abortion by practitioners in the medical field, particularly in cases where women’s physical and psychological health is affected. Annab said that abortion does not happen in Jordan unless there is a risk to the woman’s health, like having chronic diseases that affect her reproductive health, adding, “If she was not psychologically ready to have a baby and her conditions would not allow it, she could not have an abortion according to law.” Such procedures, Annab explained, push women to go to unsafe and unclean places, which causes post-abortion complications and subjects them and those who perform the procedure to legal punishments. Moreover, because abortion-inducing medications do not exist in Jordan, so the law leaves women no choice but unsafe abortion.
Médecins Sans Frontières asserts that unsafe abortion is one of the leading causes of maternal mortalities all over the world, and that it is the only cause that can be totally prevented and avoided. In Jordan, this will not happen until legal amendments that allow it are made.
- Arabic version of Jordanian Penal Code No. 16 of 1960, Articles 321 – 325
- Saadeh, M.; Alfaqih, M. & Odat, A., Attitudes of Medical and Health Sciences Students towards Abortion in Jordan. Hindawi, 10/2021, 22/02/2022.
- EDITORIAL The Limits of the Law: Abortion in the Middle East and North Africa. Maffi, I and Tønnessen, L, Health and Human Rights Journal, 12/09/2019, 22/02/2022.
- Public Health Law No. 47 of 2008 and its amendments, Article 12.
- Arabic version of Jordan Medical Constitution, Article 12.