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

Georgian Women Struggle To Access Safe Abortion

The church, politicians and even medical professionals often oppose the procedure.
By Tako Svanidze

Although abortion is legal in Georgia, many women still struggle to access safe services due to social pressure, prejudice and high prices.

Last year, around 23,000 abortions were performed in the country, but public opinion remains resolutely opposed to the procedure.

According to a survey by local research organisation CRRC Georgia, 69 per cent of Georgian women said that they could never justify an abortion.

This may be partly due to the influence of the Georgian Orthodox church. Recently, the Patriarchate demanded that a fetus be given legal status from the very first day of its existence.

“The life of the fetus must be protected from the moment of conception,” one priest, Father Levan, told IWPR. “I know some international laws that recognise the fetus as a successor; this means that it recognizes the right of the embryo to live. The church always supports women and helps them not to make such a sinful decision.”

Doctors may even refuse to perform abortion due to their religious beliefs.

Gulnara Guliashvili, a gynaecologist in Marneuli - a region predominantly inhabited by ethnic Azerbaijanis - said that she had never carried out an abortion, considering it to be a crime.

“How can I kill sentient beings?” she asked. “If you are a Christian, you will find the answer to why I am against abortion.”

“I always warn my patients about the dangers of abortion,” Guliashvili continued. “I try to convince them not to kill the foetus, which already has a soul and signs of life. I do what I think is right; the final decision is always up to the woman. If she decides to have an abortion, she should seek help from another doctor,” she said, adding that she believed that most doctors shared her opinion.

The official position of the Georgian Dream party towards abortion is one of reluctant support. Dimitri Khundadze, deputy chairman of the parliamentary health committee, emphasised that prohibiting abortion was not the best way to deal with the issue, and could in fact lead to an increase in the number of illegal procedures.

“Our approach is that the state should do everything so that the potential mother does not make this decision,” he continued. “Improving social conditions along with education and raising awareness are ways to solve this problem. However, the woman makes the final decision.”

Others from the party have more extreme views. At a session of parliament in October, Georgian Dream lawmaker Alexandre Erkvania said that it was “cynical” that “the death penalty is prohibited and a woman has a right of abortion”.

He argued that Georgia was facing a demographic catastrophe and could not develop with a permissive approach to abortion.

A study on the barriers women faced in accessing safe abortion services by reproductive health NGO Association HERA XXI showed that cost was one of the main obstacles women faced.

The expense, ranging from 80 to 250 GEL (around 27 to 85 US dollars), meant some women needed to arrange a bank loan.  A few women seek cheaper, illegal operations in their communities. Others live in rural areas from where it is too hard to access facilities.

One 38-year-old Azerbaijani mother-of-two from Marneuli, who asked to remain anonymous, said said that she went to a retired gynaecologist who offered services at home, instead of a medical facility.

The woman explained that she had had an abortion because she could simply not afford to have any more children.

 “Abortion was the solution for me. It was very difficult to make such a decision, but when I think about the consequences of having a third child, I understand that it was the only choice. I went and did it secretly from my husband. Unfortunately, I did not have enough information about contraceptives that could have prevented this. After the last abortion, I definitely use protection,” she says.

Zurab (Girchi) Japaridze, leader and founder of the libertarian party in Georgia, argued that women should have the right to choose. 

“In fact, there is no proper discussion by the government and society on this issue. This is a topic that becomes popular after one of the high-ranking members of the patriarchy called for a ban on abortion in his sermons, then this topic falls [out of] the headlines again,” he said.

The ombudsman’s annual report on sexual and reproductive health and human rights indicated that women lack access to comprehensive information about contraception.

“Prevention of the use of modern family planning methods is caused by widespread myths about the harmful effects of hormonal contraceptives; these myths are also promoted by gynaecologists,” said Elene Kaikhosroshvili, an activist and representative of the Public Defender. “The problem is also that women rarely go to the doctor with their partners or husbands to get contraceptive counselling. Protection from unwanted pregnancy is considered the full responsibility of women.”

Meanwhile, the Public Defender of Georgia reported that gender-selective abortion was still a problem in regions with large ethnic minority populations. The government recommendation to medical professionals is not to reveal a gender of a foetus to the parents until the 16th week of pregnancy, but this is not mandatory.

Another woman who asked to remain anonymous told IWPR that she had terminated four pregnancies because her husband and in-laws insisted that her next child be a boy.

“I already had two girls, and my husband and his family made me have a boy. When I had an abortion for the first time, I was very afraid, but I knew that my husband wanted a boy. Finally, we got a boy. Since then I have been protecting myself. I want to tell you that abortion is a very difficult decision and very harmful for woman’s body. If I had a boy from the very beginning, I would not have gone through this,” she says.

Gender researcher Khatia Akhalaia, who has been the victim of public anger over the sex education videos she posts on YouTube, stressed that the problem lay in a lack of education and the stigma that still surrounded discussing female sexuality.

“Abortions are part of women's sexuality, and sexuality has been a taboo in our country... In the days of the Soviet Union, no one talked about it because it was shamefuk, and men used it to control women. We, too, are heirs to the Soviet experience, and we cannot speak openly about women’s sexuality and abortions,” she said.

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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