Recently, the public debate in Pakistan has centred around the ‘protection of life’, be it of journalists who are being increasingly targeted, or the people of Karachi who are experiencing targeted killings, or even the common person on the street who is constantly under threat from terrorists. In this discourse, however, we seldom think of one of the most vulnerable and least mentioned members of our society — the unborn.
A few days ago, I was conversing with a gynecologist and it appeared that Pakistan has a very high incidence of abortions and that they are mostly done in the ‘back alley’ by dubiously-trained ‘medical practitioners’ or at times, just random people. Abortion still carries a social stigma and so is not done easily, but its unregulated persistence creates not only complications for the mother (both physical and psychological), but also simply ‘kills’ (in effect homicide) the unborn child who should have the right to life.
Unknown to most, Pakistan does indeed have laws which regulate abortion. Until 1990, the main law regulating abortion was Section 312 of the Pakistan Penal Code (1860), which stipulated a three-year term of imprisonment for anyone conducting an abortion except for doing so to save a woman’s life in ‘good faith’. Since 1990, the law (enacted properly in 1997) has been Islamised and now allows an abortion before the organs of the unborn child have been formed if the life of the mother is in danger or for ‘necessary treatment’. After the limbs of the unborn have been formed, abortion is only allowed for the former reason.
Quite obviously, this law is fraught with problems. First, it does not delineate the different stages of pregnancy. When exactly are limbs ‘formed’ and what constitutes them being ‘formed’ is something clearly debatable. Secondly, ‘necessary treatment’ can mean almost anything, which practically means that people potentially have a free hand in conducting abortions before a certain stage. Thirdly, and most importantly, this law simply assumes abortion as a reality. In fact, there is no debate whatsoever on the question of abortion in Pakistan. While the case of Roe v Wade is still a political and social issue in the United States, for example, whether life begins at conception and how should it be protected, has never clearly been debated in Pakistan.
Issues relating to pregnancy and childbirth are still socially taboo subjects in Pakistan. But this lack of discourse has meant that Pakistan still has one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. Also, since a large number of births still take place at home without proper medical care, such issues are never raised in the public sphere. Furthermore, for some, abortion is related to family planning, which is also a false correlation. It is one thing to control the rapid increase in population through contraception and quite another to permit abortions — killing of the unborn child.
Some people might wonder why I am writing about abortion when grown-ups have a precarious existence in Pakistan. I would argue that it is precisely because of the increased vulnerability of people that we must focus on the vulnerability of the unborn. The unborn really have no voice, no advocate, no public platform — they are, in fact, the least protected of us all. And if we do not create policies that make abortion more restricted and controlled, we will not only fail to protect the unborn, but also lose our respect for life.
Every other day we hear of incidents of homicides over the smallest of issues. It is as if there is no real value for human life. The tragic stories that come out of the hinterland every now and then shock us to the core, but do not make us do something about them. We all want a safe and prosperous Pakistan, but how can we achieve it if we fail to protect the most vulnerable among us all? We all want life to be protected and valued, so why not start at the beginning?
Published in The Express Tribune, May 8th, 2014.