Abortions performed in UAE only if lethal abnormality ‘incompatible with life’ is detected

The UAE's law on abortion states that an abortion can only be performed within 120 days of pregnancy and if the abnormality detected is 'incompatible with life'.

Amal Badwy counsels women at Corniche Hospital, who plan to terminate their pregnancy. Delores Johnson / The National
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ABU DHABI // The law on abortion is clear and the UAE’s leading maternity hospital follows it to the letter.

“If an abnormality is found after 120 days, if the mother didn’t come in time for whatever reason, then by law we cannot terminate the pregnancy and the mother has to go through the pregnancy and deliver the baby,” said Dr Paul Bosio, chief medical officer at Corniche Hospital in Abu Dhabi, which delivers about 7,500 babies a year.

Even if an abnormality is detected before 120 days, a termination is not a formality, Dr Bosio said.

It is permissible only when “the baby has a lethal condition that is not compatible with life and the baby would not survive.

“It cannot be over a disability or Down syndrome, for example, because that is compatible with life.

“There is a long list of genetic or congenital errors but many are very rare. The common ones are Edwards or Turner syndrome. Then there are structural problems such as a heart that isn’t divided properly, or lungs that don’t work, or absent kidneys.

“It’s not about the quality of life – these are babies that won’t survive more than a couple of hours, and for that we refer to Sharia and UAE law, which are aligned.”

Dr Bosio pointed out that the law was similar in many other countries, and some were even more restrictive.

“In some countries termination of pregnancy is illegal irrespective of whether the baby has lethal abnormalities or not.”

At the Corniche, mothers who know they will have to give birth to babies with fatal abnormalities are offered “lots of support”.

“It’s a very hard and sensitive period for the entire family and both partners are called in for counselling,” said Amal Mohamed Badwy, a staff nurse at the foetal medicine unit and a member of the team that offers such support.

A termination is never mentioned or suggested, even if it is legal, she said. “This is a choice that the parents have to make on their own. We tell them what their options are and it’s their decision in the end.”

She said most parents chose to abort the foetus if an anomaly was detected or if the pregnancy was putting the mother’s life at risk. When abortion was not an option, some families simply “never show up”.

“They stop answering our calls and we understand that they have probably resorted to an illegal abortion.”

While abortion rates are in the appropriate range, according to Dr Bosio, the numbers are increasing because of early detection, Ms Badwy said.

“A lot of women go through different care, where the abnormality might not be picked up for a number of reasons,” Dr Bosio said.

“It could also be that it’s a very rare abnormality that isn’t picked up until the baby is born. We can’t diagnose everything inside the womb. We diagnose more things and there are advances every day and every year, but there are still a number of abnormalities that don’t emerge until later in the pregnancy.

“It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, whether it is the hospital or because sometimes the parents go for care late. It is traumatic, but I have been doing this long enough to know that parents really appreciate time spent with their child, even if it’s a couple of hours.

“It’s such a personal situation so the law can only provide a framework to make it as safe as possible, and as just as possible.

“Whatever time frame you choose, it’s always going to be arbitrary, whether it is 120 days with the creation of the soul according to Islam, or 28 weeks that someone else decides. At some point the foetus becomes a human being, and it’s about how you manage that situation and what right a human being has.

“Our role is to provide accurate information, to be compassionate and sensitive to whatever choice the parents make.”

Dr Bosio says that with advances in medicine, the period within which a termination is permitted “will be less of an issue because we are detecting abnormalities earlier and earlier, and that’s been the case for the past 20 years”.

Early access to care was the important issue, he said. “I’d say we detect 90 to 95 per cent of lethal abnormalities, sometimes not early enough because most of the time mothers are referred to us by other hospitals, but I can say that if a mother books for us early, around 12 weeks, then we can detect 90 per cent of lethal abnormalities early.”