TFT SPECIAL: Decriminalising Abortion in Pakistan: A Case for Population Justice and Human Rights of Women

TFT SPECIAL: Decriminalising Abortion in Pakistan: A Case for Population Justice and Human Rights of Women
Pakistan’s outdated abortion laws pose serious threats to human rights of the people especially women in the country. One of the major manifestations of harsh laws pertaining to abortion in Pakistan is the frequency of women either resorting to perilous abortion procedures hence putting their lives at risk, or keeping unintended pregnancies thus leading to overpopulation. In both cases, their human rights are violated at many levels warranting attention of the law and policy makers as well as civil society.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), declares abortion a human rights and states that women have the right to go for abortion whenever it is needed. As per the United Nations, abortion should be permitted and legalized if it is to save the life of the pregnant woman; to preserve a woman’s physical health; to preserve a woman’s mental health; in cases of fetal impairment; in cases of incest or rape; for social or economic reasons; and upon request of the woman.

In Pakistan, however, abortion is criminalized under Pakistan Penal Code subject to two undefined and vague exceptions. In Penal Code, 1860, abortion is referred to as ‘Isqat-e-Haml’ and ‘Isqat-e-Janin’ under Section 338, 338A, 338B, and 338C. Isqat-e-haml refers to the termination of pregnancy at the stage when organs of the child have not been formed. However, when some organs or limbs of the child have been formed, and the pregnancy is terminated, it is referred to as Isqat-e-Janin.

Under Section 338 and 338(B), termination of pregnancy is a punishable offence, unless it is carried out under ‘good faith’, or to save the life of the woman through the ‘necessary treatment’ to her. In any cases otherwise, abortion is punishable with imprisonment for three years or more, depending upon whether or not the consent of the woman was sought. Both ‘good faith’ and ‘necessary treatment’ are not defined under the law hence the procedures of abortion are carried out reluctantly by the healthcare professionals, pushing many women and girls to resort to unsafe abortion facilities.

The international human rights bodies have repeatedly called for the decriminalization of abortion in all circumstances. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have also identified denial of access to abortion as a form of gender based violence against women, which can amount to torture and/or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

In view of the foregoing, it is high time to identify criminalization of abortion as ‘over-criminalization’. Criminalization of abortion not only attaches stigma to abortion but also plays fundamental role in restricted access to safe abortion mechanisms in Pakistan thus putting women’s health, life, choice, dignity, body privacy and many other rights at serious risk. The problem, however, does not end here and has many other dimensions to it such as overpopulation.

The decriminalization of abortion and protection of human rights of women can lead to a major change in how we tackle population concerns as well. Thus, it is direly needed to view the rampant population growth in Pakistan as a result of women’s inability to make decisions pertaining to their own reproductive health. The current alarmist approach to control population is tantamount to using women's bodies as instruments to attain population objectives, while brushing their critical human rights issues under the carpet.

Therefore, we need to shift the focus from just bringing the population figures down to actually protecting the human rights of women who in most cases do not have the choice over their bodies regarding sex, pregnancy, birth control and healthcare. Thus, issues such as over population must be dealt with human rights perspective and stakeholders should shift their focus from a reactionary approach to protection and promotion of human rights of women to effectively handle overpopulation in Pakistan.

Detaching stigma from abortion by decriminalizing it and protection & promotion of other human rights of women will actually empower women to make informed choices about their sexual and reproductive health leading to planned pregnancies, better healthcare, economic stability, mental and physical wellbeing and better lives for future generations.

Read the other articles from the series below:

On Track For 300 Million, Will Pakistan’s Population Bomb Explode?

Reframing The Population Growth Debate: Women’s Health And Autonomy

Reproductive Health And Its Relation To Women’s Economic Empowerment