Morocco was among the first Arab and Muslim countries to approve the birth-control pill. Now women activists are fighting for the right to choose to have an abortion.
RABAT — Her voice is thick with emotion, the words flowing too fast. Aïcha (not her real name) finds it difficult to talk about herself, to tell her story. In 2012, the young woman was told she was pregnant, again. Her unemployed husband asked her to "get rid of it." The couple, who live in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, were already struggling to raise their three children.
She couldn't find a certified doctor who would agree to perform an abortion, and when she finally decided to turn to a black-market abortionist, she gave up on the idea "out of fear." Today, with her little boy on her lap, the mother of four, now even more burdened by everyday life’s difficulties, doesn’t conceal that she wished she'd had a choice.
A feminist umbrella group called The Dignity Spring has launched a new campaign calling for the decriminalization of abortion and the "right of women to self-determination."
In the media, inside parliamentary groups and associations, the debate is shaking Moroccan society like never before since King Mohammed VI hinted on March 16 that the law should be reformed to stem the tide of dangerous, underground abortions and make safe ones accessible.
Under current Moroccan law, abortion is forbidden, except if there’s a danger to the mother's life or health. Women who abort for other reasons than these risk between six months and two years in prison, and the doctors up to 20 years.
In 2013, gynecologist Aziz Lahlou was sentenced to 10 years in prison, later reduced to five years on appeal. His secretary, his nurse, his anesthesiologist, and even his cleaning lady were also jailed. Though it is severely punished by law, abortion is nevertheless a common reality. "Everybody knows it," says professor Chafik Chraibi, who in 2008 founded the Moroccan association Amlac to fight clandestine and often dangerous abortions.
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Women in Rabat — Photo: Zakaria ElQotbi
ï»¿Exposing a grim reality
Lahlou was the man who started it all. In May 2014, the then-chief at the maternity ward of Rabat's Orangers Hospital opened his department to French investigative journalists. Their report, broadcast the following December on French national television, showed women and young girls being rushed to the hospital after resorting to illegal and unsafe abortions. Soon after that, Lahlou lost his job. The story could have ended there if people hadn't started an online campaign to defend him. And the controversy kept growing until the king's recent announcement, "a historic day," Lahlou says, his voice breaking.
For 30 years, he was a direct witness to the tragedy of black-market abortions.
"With this report, I didn't want to damage Morocco's image but just to show what our daily life is like," he says. "These women arrive in the emergency room with hemorrhaging or infections because they aborted in ghastly conditions, young girls suffering from intoxication because they took whatever product." Not to mention those who show up in the hospital to ask for an abortion "like this 13-year-old victim of incest or another whose mental disease motivated her abuse," Lahlou says. "We can't do anything for them. The law doesn't let us. For a doctor, that's terrible."
According to the Amlac and its often disputed figures, there are between 600 and 800 illegal abortions performed every day in Morocco. "When you're rich, you fly to France and have your abortion safely," Lahlou says. "When you're middle-class, you can afford a doctor in Morocco," who will take the risk. But the poorest have no such choice. Those who can't afford the 300 to 1,500 euros turn to abortionists and their disastrous methods that include knitting needles, toxic plants and drugs.
No sex education
In the 1970s, Morocco was one of the first Arab and Muslim countries to legalize contraception. The pill is still available without prescription, and health centers distribute it for free to married women only, in theory, but in practice more widely. Since 2010, the morning-after pill has also been available. "The problem," says Chraibi, "is that there's no sexual education, no information, and many young girls are scared that their parents will find out they're on the pill."
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Walking on the beach in Rabat — Photo: Funky Tee
Asma Lamrabet, a doctor who has been leading the Center for Women's Studies in Islam since 2011, says the debate shows the evolutions and contradictions of Moroccan society. It's a tricky task is to reinterpret the holy scriptures "from a feminine perspective," she says. "We've been told that Islam forbids abortion, but that's not true."
Lamrabet says she’s noticed a conservative evolution in Moroccan society in the last decade. "The society turned to religion as a shield from a Western world it sees as too indulgent. The consequence is that people prefer to bury their heads in the sand and ignore part of the reality."
Nouzha Skalli, a parliament member from the Party of Progress and Socialism, knows this reality only too well. "The average age to marry is 26 for women, 31 for men, but that for the first sexual intercourse is around 18 for both. How long are we going to continue with our ostrich-like approach?"
Their opponents defend "the right to life" and argue that softening the law would only lead to more abortions. But opinions inside the political parties aren't unanimous. Saadeddine El Othmani, the number two official in the ruling Justice and Development Party, favors legalizing abortion in the first seven weeks of pregnancy for cases of rape, incest and severe malformations. But, he admits, "it's my position, not that of the party."
The pro-legalization backers know their biggest challenge is to convince a divided public. "The society won’t accept total legalization," Chraibi says. "Moroccans aren't ready." But, he insists, "We have an historic opportunity to move things forward. Limiting the legislation to rape, incest or malformations will only solve 5% to 10% of the cases."