Women in the UAE no longer require their husband's consent to undergo emergency abortions.
New legislation allows women to terminate their pregnancy after receiving the results of their medical report if it states that their own life, or that of their unborn child, is at risk.
The procedure will only be granted after the woman has given her consent, or if her consent is not possible, her husband or guardian.
The law, which was approved by the government in October, did not clarify if limits were in place to when an abortion can take place.
Previously, the legislation stated that in cases where the baby would be born with life-threatening conditions, abortions were only granted if the foetus was less than 120 days old.
Abortion is only permitted in the UAE if the pregnancy puts the mother's life at risk, or if the baby suffers from life-threatening abnormalities that would prevent it from living a fulfilling life.
The new legislation comes as part of a succession of local and federal laws that are aimed at supporting women's rights across the country.
Other reforms include decriminalising surrogacy, as well as allowing unmarried women to undergo IVF treatment.
Corniche Hospital, Abu Dhabi's main maternity hospital, which delivers about 7,500 babies a year, performs around five or six terminations a week.
Until a few years ago, it was the only hospital in the emirate permitted to perform the procedure.
Now, the new law permits private licensed facilities to perform abortions.
Supportive of women's rights
Dr Paul Bosio, chief medical officer at Corniche Hospital, said he has seen both ends of the spectrum of abortion services.
He had previously worked in Ireland when abortions were illegal, as well as the UK where abortions have been available since 1967.
“I've seen the two extremes and to be where we are [in the UAE] with these new changes, it is ideal,” he told The National.
“The provision of abortion services can be a very controversial area in many parts of the world and in different cultures. But as a gynaecologist who has advocated for both women's rights and health, I personally feel that our law here is perfect.”
Dr Bosio noted that while the new law protects mothers who have serious conditions, it also offers a humane approach towards babies who have life-threatening conditions.
“This is why I do have a lot of admiration for the law here.”
Dr Sonalica Suresh, a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology at NMC Speciality hospital, Al Nahda, in Dubai, welcomed the decision.
"I feel this is a progressive step which recognises and implement the reproductive rights of women," she said.
"It gives women the autonomy over their life and the life of the unborn child."
Byron James, partner and head of Dubai firm Expatriate Law, said the new law gives women autonomy over their bodies and their unborn child.
“The law in Abu Dhabi, as well as the UAE, in comparison to the rest of the GCC, is by far the most supportive for women. I have so much respect for it in every regard,” he said.
He said the new changes in legislation in family law have been positive.
“In the Abu Dhabi Civil Family Court, you can now have spousal maintenance for longer than just three months unlike most Sharia-led countries. You also now have the ability to ask for capital orders [such as lump sum payments], which is not just unusual in the GCC but unique.”
Mr James highlighted the broader effect of the reforms, including legislation regarding visas.
“You can sponsor a child without needing a father to give you permission to do so. You can be a woman raising a child in the UAE without needing anyone else's permission or consent.
“That also applies to putting children in school or getting medical treatment.”
Mr James said that women thinking about moving to the GCC would be best protected in the UAE.
“There is only one country where you would feel that your rights would be best protected and that is the UAE, and in particular, Abu Dhabi.
“I think what the UAE is doing is to balance the progressive, while also not undermining the morals and integrity that the UAE was founded upon.”
Abortion rights around the world
Abortion is prohibited in 24 countries, including Andorra, Poland, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Jamaica, Iraq, Malta, the Philippines and Sierra Leone.
According to the World Health Organisation, when people face barriers to obtaining safe abortions, they often resort to unsafe procedures, and they are more common in countries with restrictive laws.
Other countries, such as Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and Ireland, have relaxed their abortion restrictions. In 2018, Ireland voted to remove an abortion ban from its constitution, and the procedure is now permitted up to the 12th week of pregnancy, when the health or life of a mother is at risk, or when the foetus has a congenital defect.
Laws around abortion in Europe, Canada and Australia have few restrictions other than gestational limits. France has a gestational limit of 16 weeks, Spain's limit is 14 weeks and Italy's is 60 days.
In South Africa and Mozambique, abortion is permitted but limited to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
In June 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, reversing Roe v Wade, which was upheld for about half a century.
The decision meant that abortion is completely banned in 14 states, while two – Georgia and South Carolina – have banned abortion past about six weeks of pregnancy.
Other states have enacted laws or held ballot referendums to protect abortion rights.