Countries of the Month: Countries in the Middle East

In the Middle East and North Africa, unsafe abortions are easily among the biggest challenges to public health. One in four pregnancies are unintended, either out of the need for couples to have children later, or already having had enough.[1] Owing to strict laws against abortions, women have been forced to resort to unsafe means and methods to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Consequently, these women are exposed to many vulnerabilities vis-à-vis their health and life.[2]

In the coming month, we will be taking you through the state of affairs concerning abortions in the Middle East and North Africa, focusing specifically on certain countries. Tunisia, in comparison with its counterparts in the region, is by far the most liberal when it comes to abortion policies. Abortions are permitted for the mother during the first trimester of the pregnancy, and are allowed until after twelve weeks – if the mother’s physical or mental health is at risk, or if there are foetal abnormalities. In more traditional communities, though, doctors may not be as willing to perform abortions in situations that involve pregnancies arising out of social taboos: mainly sexual relations ships before or outside of marriage. This  forces women and girls to resort to unsafe abortions. Egypt, on the other hand, bans abortions in all circumstances by way of its 1937 Penal Code , allowing them only for saving thee woman’s life or foetal abnormality. In these cases , it is necessary for a committee of physicians to agree that the abortion is acceptable within the ambit of the law.

Iran declared abortions illegal since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with the only exception being to save the life of a woman. In 2005, though, the Parliament of Iran passed a measure allowing abortions within the first four months of pregnancy in cases of foetal impairment that would result in economic burden, but it was ultimately blocked by the Iranian Guardian Council. The Therapeutic Abortion Act of June 21, 2005 permitted the termination of pregnancy during the first four months if the foetus is mentally or physically handicapped or if the woman’s life is in danger. According to the law, the woman’s consent is sufficient to carry out the abortion, but three specialists must confirm that the foetus is disabled or the mother has a life-threatening condition. Under the Penal Code of 1991, which is based on Islamic law, abortion for any other reason is categorized as a lesser crime involving bodily injury (oisas), which is punishable by the payment of blood money or compensation (diyah). Compensation is paid to the woman or, in the case of her death, to her relatives. But, in July 2012, Iran’s government announced that it would no longer fund family planning programs, a dramatic reversal following 20 years of support. The change is especially abrupt for a country that has been lauded as a family planning success story, with thorough rural health services and an educated female population contributing to one of the swiftest demographic transitions in history. We can only imagine the consequences of this on the numbers of unwanted pregnancies.

Lebanon has fairly strict laws against abortions. The lack of sexual education and the lack of access to affordable and safe abortions have been major contributors to the incremental levels in unsafe abortions in Lebanon. In 2012, morning-after pills were legal in the country, but were taken off of shelves in over 20 pharmacies for reasons on which pharmacists would not comment. Despite the strict laws against abortions, Lebanon has become a hub for women from many different countries wishing to have abortions. Abortions are only allowed to keep a woman from dying. One Beirut gynaecologist stated that approximately 40% of his patients seeking abortions are travelling from other Middle Eastern countries.

In Turkey, a 1983 law makes abortion legal in all circumstances within 10 weeks of pregnancy. After the period of 10 weeks, abortion is legal only if the woman’s life is at risk, or if her physical or mental health is in danger or if her pregnancy involves foetal abnormalities, or in the cases of conception out of rape or incest, or in the case of foetal impairment and economic or social reasons. Parental- and spousal-consent requirements are in effect, but they can be waived if the risk to the mother’s life constitutes an immediate danger.

Join us for a month-long awareness campaign on the dynamics of abortions in the Middle East and North Africa as they play out in the face of socio-cultural, economic and legal barriers.



[1] World Health Organization, Unsafe Abortion: Global and Regional Estimates of the Incidence of Unsafe Abortion and Associated Mortality in 2003 (Geneva: WHO, 2007): table 2

[2] World Health Organization, Unsafe Abortion: Global and Regional Estimates of the Incidence of Unsafe Abortion and Associated Mortality in 2003 (Geneva: WHO, 2007): table 2

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About Asia Safe Abortion Partnership

The Asia Safe Abortion Partnership is a regional network that promotes and advances women's reproductive and sexual rights across Asia. We are a prochoice network that works for women's right to safe abortion across the region.
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