Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azeri Abortion Ban Proposal Meets Angry Reaction

If legal abortions ended, experts say a dangerous and corrupt industry would flourish underground.
By Aliya Haqverdi
  • Matanat Azizova of the Women's Crisis Centre in Azerbaijan. (Photo courtesy of M. Azizova)
    Matanat Azizova of the Women's Crisis Centre in Azerbaijan. (Photo courtesy of M. Azizova)
  • Ulviya Mammadova argues that a ban will have many negative social consequences. (Photo courtesy of U. Mammadova)
    Ulviya Mammadova argues that a ban will have many negative social consequences. (Photo courtesy of U. Mammadova)

Women’s rights activists in Azerbaijan are worried about a proposal to ban abortion, which they say is a retrograde idea that will only create a high-risk backstreet surgery industry.

The proposal was made by Hadi Rajabli, chairman of the Azerbaijani parliament’s social policy committee and a member of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan party.

“In many countries of the world, including China, Iran and Islamic states, abortion is regarded as murdering a human being. The destruction of unborn infants in their mothers’ wombs is not justified on humanitarian or religious grounds,” he said. “We therefore believe that such a ban could be introduced in Azerbaijan.”

It comes after a similar idea was floated in neighbouring Turkey, also a secular Muslim state and with strong cultural ties with Azerbaijan.

Turkish prime minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan has suggested that abortion might be banned beyond the fourth week of pregnancy.

Under Azerbaijani law, abortion is legal up to the 12th week of pregnancy, and under exceptional circumstances, including social factors like poverty or divorce, until the 22nd week.

In the Soviet Union, contraceptive methods were not widely available, and abortion was the most common form of birth control. Activists say that situation persists, so that many women in Azerbaijan are unaware of other methods.

Matanat Azizova, head of the Women’s Crisis Centre, lists some of the social factors that lead to high rates of abortion – “unemployment, low wages, fear of losing one’s job, corruption in the healthcare system, housing problems and the like”.

Azizova believes the proposed ban would be disastrous.

“There will be illegal abortions, causing death, sterility, various illnesses and so on,” she said. “It will also be a good way of fostering corruption –pregnant women will be able to pay doctors for a document stating that abortion is necessary on health grounds.”

She said a ban would force rape victims and unmarried women to give information to doctors that they might not otherwise disclose.

The abortion debate in Azerbaijan has often touched on the issue of sex selection, in which parents opt to terminate female foetuses. The use of selective abortion in favour of boys has created a large imbalance in the newborn sex ratio, 112 male to every 100 female babies. (IWPR looked at this issue last September in South Caucasus: Selective Abortion Means Fewer Girls Born..)

Azizova said a blanket ban was no way of dealing with this issue.

“International organisations have urged Azerbaijan to address the selective abortion problem which unfortunately exists here. But they [national authorities] have decided that the easiest route to fixing this is a ban, just so that they don’t have to think about it,” she said.

Ulviya Mammadova, a scholar at the Women’s Human Rights Training Institute in Azerbaijan and a well-known rights activist, agreed that the proposed ban was wrong.

“In practice, it will just create new problems, given the lack of social protections for women and low wages earned by young mothers,” she said. “Corruption and the lack of an effective healthcare system will lead to illegal abortions at sky-high prices, with no way of holding doctors to account. There will be more abandoned children, and maternal mortality will increase.”

Since only 20 out the 125 members of Azerbaijan’s parliament are female, and right activists like Mammadova worry that the concerns of women will not get a proper hearing if Rejebli’s proposal makes it as far as draft legislation

Mammadova predicted a public outcry if a bill ever went before parliament, although she said this would be muted by factors “ranging from the bureaucratic measures the authorities take to deal with any protest, to the very limited activism of women in this patriarchal society – many of them aren’t even aware an abortion ban is on the cards”.

Campaigning against a ban will be an uphill struggle among sections of Azerbaijani society. Jamila Mammadova, is female, 20 years old, and a university student – and absolutely opposed to abortion.

“Termination of a pregnancy is a terrible sin,” she said. “I can’t see how this law will run into any problems with our customs and traditions.”

In this Muslim-majority nation, religious principles also play a role in shaping opinion.

Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, imam of Baku’s Friday mosque and chairman of the Centre for the Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Confession, said abortion was forbidden by his faith, but he recommended using education and better welfare provision rather than legislation to address the issue.

“In countries like ours, bans are counterproductive and often result in the opposite of what was intended,” he said. “It will create an even greater tolerance of corruption, a rise in primitive forms of termination, an underground abortion industry, and protection rackets surrounding it.”

Aliya Haqverdi is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.