MUSCAT // Medical practitioners in Oman are concerned that parents are forcing their unmarried daughters to get abortions, putting family honour ahead of the health risk they pose to the women.
Abortion in Oman is illegal under civil law and forbidden under Sharia unless the mother's life is in danger. But doctors in the sultanate's six major hospitals say at least two women each month arrive at emergency departments heavily bleeding after botched procedures. As the procedures are done in secret, it is difficult to say how widespread the problem is.
"These women who have abortions are rushed to the hospitals fighting for their lives. The problem is that they use crude instruments to force the baby out," said Dr Susan Almeida of the Muscat-based Royal Hospital.
Dr Almeida said most of the abortion procedures are done by elderly women who charge exorbitant fees, from 200 to 300 rials (Dh1,900 to Dh2,800), to unmarried women. Some women die during the procedure. Those who survive tell tales of regret, horrible experiences and considerable pain.
"I thought I was going to die," said one young woman, who declined to be identified, recalling her experience. "It was also extremely painful. I could not walk for weeks and every time I went to the toilet I bled heavily. Was it worth it? No, because I lost my baby as well."
She said she was dragged by her two brothers, thrown into a pickup truck in the middle of the night, and driven to the local abortionist.
One police officer experienced in abortion cases said it was a difficult crime to investigate because those who perform the procedure are sworn to secrecy by the family not to reveal the names of their clients.
"The abortionists never get caught and the family's secret is safe with her," said the officer, who would not give his name.
The officer said the procedures are commonly carried out in rural areas where drugs that induce abortions are difficult to obtain. In major towns such as Muscat, Sohar and Salalah, pregnant unmarried women have access to abortion pills.
"We successfully clamped down on rogue doctors or pharmacists who used to sell such drugs in a black market. But that was 10 years ago. Now these young women, often educated, buy abortion pills online. It is that easy, and hard to control," the police officer said.
But doctors said that even women who use the drugs can develop complications that may require medical attention.
Dr Zeenah Farahidi, who works at Sohar Hospital in the country's north, said families need to think about the health of their daughters, rather than avoiding society's shame.
"Forced abortions is about family honour and the families of these women don't really care about the dangers involved," said Dr Farahidi.
Pregnancy out of wedlock is widely blamed for abortions and most common among young women between the ages of 18 and 25, said Jamila al Zara'ee, a social worker with the social development ministry. She said many young people are now meeting at college campuses where they develop relationships.
"We have cases, say three in six months on average, of women complaining that they would rather keep their babies than be forced by their families to abort them.
"I also hear similar cases from my colleagues when we compare notes from other areas of the country," said Ms Zara'ee.