Abortion in the spotlight in conservative Morocco

Abortion in the spotlight in conservative Morocco


Debate over abortion rights has flared up in Morocco following the death of a teenager after an unsafe abortion, but social taboos continue to hamper reforms.

“If I spoke out in front of my brothers for abortion rights, I would risk my life,” said 21-year-old college student Leila, adding that she comes from a relatively “modern” family.

In September, a 14-year-old, identified as Meriem, died after an uncertain procedure in a rural village in the center of the country.

The conservative North African kingdom, which criminalizes abortion, has since seen growing calls for reform of women’s reproductive rights, although pervasive social attitudes and a lack of political will continue to block change.

“If I said the word ‘abortion’ in my family, I would be blamed and rejected, even by my parents,” said 22-year-old Amal, a student at Rabat University.

– “Law that kills” –

Provided pregnancy does not endanger a woman’s health, Moroccan women who undergo an abortion face up to two years in prison, while those who assist them risk five years in prison.

Local organizations say that despite the heavy penalties, between 600 and 800 women in the country of 38 million people have abortions every day – many in dangerous, unsanitary conditions.

Meriem was “executed in the home of a young man who sexually exploited the victim,” Moroccan feminist coalition Spring of Dignity said.

Her death came seven years after a royal commission recommended decriminalizing the procedure in “certain cases” such as rape, incest, fetal malformation or maternal intellectual disability.

But the report changed “nothing,” according to gynecologist Chafik Chraibi, a pro-legalization activist.

“There is nothing but silence, the issue is not a priority,” he told AFP.

Chraibi, founder of the Moroccan Association Against Clandestine Abortion, says a lack of political will is blocking any change to an “archaic” 1963 law.

A bill to amend the law was presented to Parliament twice before being withdrawn without official explanation.

Dozens of human rights activists gathered outside Parliament in late September to demand changes to the “law that kills”.

Family Minister Aawatif Hayar told parliament last month the government had “serious interest” in amending the penal code.

But any changes must “respect Islamic law and be acceptable to Moroccan society,” she said.

Activist Chraibi said religious authorities and Moroccan conservatism would block moves towards decriminalization – but added that nothing in Islamic law specifically prohibits the practice.

– “Judicial and social violence” –

Morocco is far from being an outlier in the Arab world.

The only North African country allowing women to choose to have an abortion is Tunisia, whose first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba, legalized the practice in 1973, two years earlier than former colonial power France.

But there is little national debate on the subject, and most women who undergo the procedure keep it secret.

A 2018 Algerian law provides for “therapeutic abortion,” but rights groups point out that it requires the approval of a medical board and is limited to cases where the mother’s life is at risk or the baby is likely to be severely disabled.

Otherwise, Algeria can impose a two-year prison sentence on women who perform abortions, while doctors who facilitate abortions face five years in prison.

Libya also criminalizes abortions unless the mother’s life is in danger, and imposes lengthy prison sentences on those who perform them.

In cases where the trial is conducted to protect the “honor” of the family, penalties are often reduced. Libyan women with the necessary means often have abortions abroad.

Moroccan activist Faouzia Yassine says the kingdom’s laws are a form of “judicial and social violence against women”.

She called for a “fundamental reform of the penal code” and alignment with “international conventions that Morocco has ratified”.

“Criminalizing abortion is restricting a woman’s freedom to control her body and shows a desire to force her to keep a fetus against her will,” she said.

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