Abortions complicate premarital screenings in Arab World

In Bahrain, tradition of marrying blood relatives, combined with lack of sex education, puts both women and their babies at risk.

February 14, 2010 18:03
4 minute read.
Muslim women.

muslim women indonesia 311. (photo credit: AP [illustrative])


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Manama, Bahrain – The wedding hall is decorated and ready for the big event. The atmosphere is vibrant and joyful as the family exchanges sweets for the big day. Like anywhere else in the world, weddings are lavish affairs in Bahrain, only here they come fraught with unspoken risk. 

It is a practice, which health officials warn, is putting the Bahrain on the precipice of a health disorder threatening to affect the next generation. The age-old tradition of marrying blood relatives has curiously become more common, and is becoming an acute problem in the tiny Gulf state. 

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Many couples undergo pre-nuptial checks to discover whether they are both carriers of genetic disorders, and thus ascertain the likelihood of genetic diseases affecting their children, but many often go through with marriage despite awareness of the high risk. 

"We have increasing numbers of cases where couples cannot decide whether to keep the baby in the womb, due to health complications later,” Dr. Fahima Al Mutawa, head of the Maternal and Child Services at the Bahraini health ministry said.

Young parents are left with the dilemma of deciding whether to terminate pregnancy at an early stage or let their baby suffer from genetic disorders and blood diseases, which are becoming increasingly common.

“It is a trauma for these young parents to come to at this stage,” Dr Al Mutawa said. “We advise them during pre-marital screening that the couples are genetic carriers, yet they go ahead and tie the knot.”
But in a place in which abortion is illegal in all public and private hospitals, the problem is bigger than it seems.

The abortion issue made its way last year into the corridors of power after the country’s Shura (Consultative) Council discussed a bill to protect the rights of unborn children.

According to the penal code, since March 1976, a woman who undergoes an abortion without the consultation of a physician or without the physician’s knowledge can face up to six months’ imprisonment or a hefty fine. The punishment for anyone performing an abortion on a woman without her consent includes imprisonment or ten years’ hard labor. The penalty for abortions that lead to the death of the victim is imprisonment.

The Media Line news agency

Women are often forced to travel to Egypt or Syria, where there are more clinics that conduct illegal abortions.

In 1995, authorities in Bahrain deported a Filipina abortionist who was allegedly caught operating in the Kingdom. After a Saudi patient became septic due to the operation, she revealed the abortionist’s identity whilst under interrogation by the police.

In a society fluctuating between conservative and contemporary, the right to choose is a controversial subject. 

A medically approved abortion is usually permitted up to the third month of pregnancy by Sharia (Islamic law), if the fetus has been found to be deformed, or with a congenital defect detected through ultrasound or other tests. 

Medical experts say early abortions can be performed under the supervision of two to three qualified consultants if it is medically proven that the pregnancy poses a threat to the mother's life.

Women have reported that illegally acquired abortion pills and herbal medicines, mainly imported from India or Sri Lanka, are sometimes available from doctors operating illegally. But supply is scarce and the taboo against sex out of wedlock and unwanted pregnancies is so strong that there have been reports of women consuming excesses of papaya juice, vinegar and fresh pineapple juice, popping extra doses of contraceptive pills and even drinking horse sweat.

Many have claimed the anti-abortion laws are far too strict in the Muslim country.

Dr. Mona Al Juffairi, Consultant Pediatrician at the state run Salmaniya Medical Complex, said abortion should be legalized for rape victims.
“We need to understand that the victim is shattered after what she has gone through and later knowing she is pregnant is a double blow,” the doctor stressed. “She did not do this for pleasure but was a victim who needs help. In my opinion, depending on the case, abortion rights should be granted in rape cases.”
The problem, Dr. Juffairi said, was Bahraini medical law, which has remained unchanged since the seventies. The doctor said that though abortion is a controversial issue, not only in Islamic countries but worldwide, benefit of the doubt should be given to the woman. 

Sara Hamdan, a young working professional, echoed Juffairi’s comments and said abortion was also necessary in cases where a woman might be ending her marriage and did not want the baby.

Citing the case of a friend who decided to keep her baby despite being unmarried, she said, "She went into hiding after she got the home pregnancy test and panicked. She traveled to Greece and delivered the baby, who was kept in an orphanage there while she returned to Bahrain."
“The irony of the fact is that she finally got married to the same man and is living a normal life,” Hamdan said. “But still the couple cannot track down their child in Greece.”

The blame for the problem often falls on a lack of sex education, which conservatives see as a threat to a society strongly bonded with Islamic values.

The situation will continue to rear its head so long as women and health professionals struggle to live in a society that strives towards modernity, yet clings to its traditional values.

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