BEIRUT: Noor was 17 when she became pregnant. After her boyfriend blamed her for the pregnancy, and she felt she couldn’t turn to her conservative Maronite family for support, she decided to get an abortion. “When I told my boyfriend [that I was pregnant], he actually just said it was disgusting that I was not in control of my body,” Noor told The Daily Star. Her name and the names of some other individuals in this piece have been changed to preserve their anonymity.
Since abortion is illegal in Lebanon, Noor decided to seek help from a doctor in Burj Hammoud whose name had been given to her by a friend.
“It was in his back room and very dirty,” Noor said, describing her experience. “The doctor told me to rest for a week, but he didn’t give me a sick leave. I was bleeding for a whole week. I felt very weak and collapsed. I was afraid I might die.”
Noor paid $500 for the procedure. Despite her frailty and continued bleeding, she kept going to school and work, afraid someone might realize what she had done.
“I thought it was obvious what was wrong with me and I was so afraid somebody might notice and report me to the police, so I did not dare go to another doctor,” she said.
THE LEGAL QUESTIONDue to its illegality, there is no official data on the incidence of abortions, with estimates ranging widely.
Articles 539-546 of the Lebanese penal code prohibit abortions under all circumstances unless to save the pregnant woman’s life.
The law also bans the “dissemination of propaganda for the purpose of propagating or facilitating methods of abortion and the selling, offer of sale, or possession with the intent to sell of objects designed to perform an abortion.”
Pregnant women who consent to or induce an abortion are subject to a penalty of six months to three years’ imprisonment. Penalties for the person performing the abortion vary, depending on whether the woman is physically harmed by the medical intervention and whether she agreed to it. If the abortion is conducted to “save the woman’s honor or that of a descendant or relative to the second degree,” the penalty will be reduced, while health professionals are subject to harsher penalties than nonprofessionals.
“Even if abortion is legal, unwanted pregnancies put the women in a situation of pressure. It’s hard to decide what they actually want,” said Lisa, a Lebanese NGO worker. “As it’s illegal, they additionally fear legal consequences and don’t know where to get informed. They are dependent on dubious doctors and many of [the women] are willing to pay any amount named.”
NGO personnel and gynecologists also fear penalties if they talk about the topic. The penal code’s prohibition of the “dissemination of propaganda” relating to abortion means advocating or organizing for its legalization is difficult, and currently, there are no NGOs or prominent campaigns in Lebanon that openly advocate for abortion.
Many fear legal consequences for conducting research or providing information, and two NGOs who were interviewed for this article decided that they did not want to be quoted, even anonymously, in order to not jeopardize their work.
Moreover, several gynecologists refused to discuss whether women ever approached them with unwanted pregnancies.
‘MY BOYFRIEND’S ABORTION’“Since even education about that topic is forbidden, art is basically the only sphere where [abortion] can be expressed,” said Melissa Ghazale, a Lebanese artist who graduated last year from the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts.
Through her art, Ghazale has seen the effects of criminalized abortions in Lebanon up close.
Her ongoing project, “My boyfriend’s abortion,” is a collection of so far 10 audio recordings of the male partners of women who have had abortions. “I thought that our society would rather listen to a man’s point of view and the testimonies confirmed that,” she said.
While none of the women described in the project had severe complications as a result of their abortion, they each tell a story of shared problems but also highlight a diversity of experiences.
“Since abortion is illegal, every step is risky and exhausting,” Ghazale said.
For instance, one of her interviewees, Janine, took the abortion pill. It didn’t work, so she turned to surgery. Her friend stated on the recordings that Janine was severely distressed throughout the entire process and cried for days. The doctor requested additional money for anesthesia, which she could not afford, so she underwent the surgery without it. When she experienced complications afterward, the doctor refused to see her again, but she did not dare to go to another doctor for fear of legal consequences.
While several testimonials tell of difficulties such as pain, lack of professionalism, lack of support and the inability to bear the financial burden, others tell another narrative that suggests abortion can be an uncomplicated procedure when undertaken in a safe medical environment.
Eric, another participant in Ghazale’s project, recalls accompanying his partner for her abortion.
“When she told me [that she was pregnant], there was no confusion because we both did not want to keep it,” Eric said. “She wanted to do it alone; I thought it was her thing. So the next day, I went to work, she went to work, after that, she went to the hospital. We both came home, it was a normal day. ... It actually brought us closer together.”
Joseph, another participant, recalled an almost lighthearted experience with his partner who took an abortion pill. “She did the test, told me [that she was pregnant], we went to the doctor, got the pill,” Joseph said. “Later, coming from the toilet, she pointed at pieces of [flesh] in the toilet bowl and said, ‘Look at your son.’ I don’t think anything changed in our relationship or in her emotional life.”
Some recordings tell the stories of girls who abruptly terminated contact with their partners after undergoing an abortion.
Whether those girls suffered emotionally and psychologically, or if they found any support at all, are questions without answers.
IT’S UP TO THE DOCTORMohammad, a Lebanese technician in his 50s, recalls past relationships with women that were complicated by abortions.
“I always thought it was the women’s responsibility to use contraceptives but when they got pregnant, we went to one doctor I know,” Mohammad said. “We never had problems. But the abortion always ended our relationships.”
He also said he didn’t think that the women suffered physical or psychological complications after the procedure. “I don’t think they had problems. Why should they?”
From Ghazale’s perspective, the opinions of men such as Mohammad or Noor’s boyfriend indicate a lack of male awareness on the subject of abortion.
According to the artist, male partners and sometimes even doctors often consider pregnancy, contraceptives and abortion a strictly female matter, blaming women for unwanted pregnancy. But when it comes to the decision-making, men want to be involved.
“Psychological problems might occur but that is the women’s problem,” a Beirut-based gynecologist who conducts abortions told The Daily Star. “Most times, the abortion is not a problem but the solution to a problem.”
Chatting in his comfortable, clean office, he describes abortions as ordinary and unproblematic, whether legally or illegally conducted.
“It’s illegal, but it is very common and accessible,” he said. “I think 90 percent of the gynecologists do it. To be honest, many women don’t even know that it is illegal because it is done so easily, so they talk openly with me about it. And if a professional gynecologist does it, the risk [of complications] is very low.” He added that complications can almost always be resolved if they are taken care of.
But in the course of the interview, he admitted that most of the women he sees are not his regular patients. Thus, he does not see them again and therefore cannot speak to their long-term psychological well-being.
Furthermore, while it is true that the incidence of complications is low in countries where abortion is legal, no such data exists in Lebanon. The gynecologist acknowledged that he does not accept women who have experienced complications after an abortion with other doctors as he does not want to get involved for fear of legal consequences.
“We have a saying: ‘Don’t sleep in the graveyard, so you won’t have bad dreams,’” he said smiling, but added more seriously that one of his colleagues was imprisoned for conducting abortions.
But what is a protective measure for the gynecologist is a concrete threat for women suffering from such complications, as the cases of Noor and some of Ghazale’s interviewees show.
The women could not obtain treatment after complications because they feared legal penalties or were rejected by health professionals.
“Of course we don’t have audio [recordings] which state severe complications. If someone dies, for example, they cannot testify and the family will surely try to hide it,” Ghazale said.
Carrying out an abortion in an unregulated environment where it is criminalized is at a doctor’s discretion. As Lisa, the NGO worker, noted, another barrier is that doctors can extort a high amount of money from desperate women. Furthermore, it is the gynecologist’s decision who they will accept as a patient.
The interviewed gynecologist said that he does not conduct an abortion if only one of the partners agrees to it – if young, unmarried couples approach him he agrees. However, he refuses married women who might be pregnant to another man, stating, “It’s her own fault.”
Three years after her abortion, Noor still has not told her parents about it. Her physical complications stopped, but she said she is still suffering from the experience psychologically and emotionally. Last summer, Noor was temporarily in the psychiatric ward of a Beirut facility after an attempted suicide.
Janine, who was interviewed by Ghazale, finally told her father, who provides her with emotional support years after the abortion. However, she said she will always keep the secret from her mother.
The current state of Ghazale’s other interviewees aren’t recorded anywhere, leaving unanswered the question of whether the abortion was just an ordinary incident or if it left far-reaching traces.