Call for change in UAE abortion law

Doctors and mothers have called for a change in the law to make terminating a pregnancy permissible even when a foetus is above 120 days.

Dr Sameh Azzazy, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, says there should be no absolute deadline for terminating a pregnancy in cases of severe foetal abnormality. Delores Johnson / The National
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ABU DHABI // Doctors and mothers have called for a change in the law to make terminating a pregnancy permissible even when a foetus has passed 120 days.

They say babies are being born with abnormalities that cannot be detected until much later in pregnancy, risking the life of both mother and child.

One mother was told a few weeks before she gave birth that her baby had a chromosomal abnormality that would cause all his organs to gradually shut down, and he would live for less than a year. Grief-stricken and helpless, she must now watch her little boy die.

“There is no worse pain,” she said. “I would not have kept the baby if I had known earlier.”

There had been hopes that a new health law introduced last month would have changed the rules. It did not, and they have remained unaltered since 2008.

A termination is permissible only if the mother’s life is in danger, when it may be carried out at any time; or if the child could not survive after birth, in which case the 120-day limit applies. The period is based on Sharia, as 120 days is the time at which the soul is believed to enter the body.

“Many anomalies can only be detected around 150 to 160 days,” said Dr Nazura Siddiqi, a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology at Bareen International Hospital in Abu Dhabi.

A scan for anomalies is routinely carried out at 20 weeks. “Even then, you can miss a lot of congenital anomalies,” Dr Siddiqi said. “I’ve had patients who’ve gone to the fifth and sixth month and only then did they discover that the baby had an abnormality and that the law did not allow an abortion at that stage.”

Scans before 120 days identify only major abnormalities, she said. “There are many others that we cannot make out until after 150 to 160 days.”

When an abnormality is diagnosed after 120 days, many mothers travel to countries where the law permits later abortions. Some have an illegal termination in the UAE or a neighbouring country, risking serious harm to their health, and possibly their lives.

“Illegal abortions are done in unsanitised, shoddy practices, and are very dangerous,” said Dr Sameh Azzazy, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Welcare Hospital in Dubai.

“The woman is susceptible to disease, or an incomplete abortion that might need another operation. She might suffer severe infections and bleeding that damage the uterus, or even cause death.

“We are talking about serious infections like Aids, hepatitis, or even losing your ability to conceive again.

“Women are resorting to these places, or to taking pills to abort the baby, because of the law.”

There should be no hard and fast cut-off date for terminating a pregnancy in cases of severe foetal abnormality, Dr Azzazy argues.

“These have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis and referred to a committee that can include a religious scholar.

“Our aim in the end, as physicians, is to have a healthy child or a child that can be treated so that ultimately we are not torturing a soul and making the entire family miserable.”


Abortion allowed in most countries to save a woman’s life

According to the United Nations publication World Abortion Policies 2011, abortion is allowed in most countries (97 per cent) in order to save a woman’s life.

Other commonly-accepted reasons are preserving physical or mental health. Abortion in the case of rape or incest is accepted in about half of all countries, and performing them because of economic or social reasons in about a third. Performing abortion only on the basis of a woman’s request is allowed in 29 per cent of all countries, including in North America and in most European countries.

Canada: Abortion is legal at all stages of pregnancy and is governed by the Canada Health Act. Canada is one of only a few nations with no legal restrictions on abortion.

United Kingdom: Abortion was made legal on a wide number of grounds in England and Wales and Scotland with the introduction of the Abortion Act 1967.

Australia: The grounds on which abortion is permitted in Australia vary from state to state. In every state, abortion is legal to protect the life and health of the woman, though each state has a different definition. There is no enforced waiting period for an abortion.

United States: Abortion in the US has been and remains a controversial issue. Individual states, particularly in the 2010s, have imposed restrictions such as requiring the woman to view an ultrasound, requiring abortion providers to have admission privileges at nearby hospitals, and long waiting periods after the first consultation with the abortion provider.