Ireland is in fierce debate over its future with abortion. Such high-stakes battles are often called a culture war.
Abortion, like war, is a terrible thing. Even if one believes it is necessary, it is still death. Defining it otherwise, depending on one’s convictions, makes it almost worse than war. It is the prevention of life.
From war, at least, can come great virtue. All too often, abortion comes because of convenience.
Except in Egypt. Even when a willful choice, it is anything but convenient.
The good journalists at Mada Masr wish Egypt could be otherwise. On Safe Abortion Day, September 28, they posted a heart-wrenching two-part article, telling three stories of women aborting.
So as background, here are the essential facts:
Egypt has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. The law, which has remained largely unchanged since the 1930s, punishes women who intentionally abort a pregnancy with imprisonment. Abortion is not permitted on any grounds, including rape or incest.
The only exception is that a woman does not face punishment if she attempts to abort unsuccessfully. The Doctors Syndicate Code of Ethics also allows physicians to perform an abortion if the woman’s life or health is threatened, but this is a moral, not a legal, duty.
While there is a widespread assumption that this restrictive stance to abortion is rooted in religion, the origins of the law are colonial in nature. Articles that are still in force today were based on items in the French Penal Code.
But as will be seen, judicial rulings made little difference to the following three women.
Story one concerns a woman who had to hide away for her abortion, as she afterwards struggles with the morality of her choice.
Story two is of a woman in a forbidden relationship despite a knowing mother, which the abortion threatens if the wrong people find out.
Story three is of a married woman whose pregnancy puts her life in danger, only to be left unattended by doctors reluctant to get involved.
Had I been married, I would have had the abortion at home. There would have been no need to make up excuses to escape my family during that time. I would have been able to receive my friends at home, or at least I would have been able to use the bathroom freely without having to kneel whenever I passed in front of the window so the neighbors wouldn’t notice me.
Had I been married, I would have been able to go to any hospital as soon as the bleeding started. I would have been able to pretend that this was an accidental miscarriage and I would have received medical attention.
Had I been married, I would have received the news of my pregnancy differently, even if I decided to abort in the end.
Much of my resentment arose from the feeling that I was doing something illegal, even though it’s my own body. If I were in a different country, I might have been able to go to a hospital and request counseling. It’s disturbing not to be able to ask for help, to feel oppressed under a guardianship imposed by law and society.
Even though I had read over and over that a fertilized egg has no soul, I felt that I was killing my son or daughter. I felt the pain of loss and I was troubled by my questions:
Why did I have to do it this way? Perhaps I was worried more about the standard of living and the kind of life we had — if I didn’t have to struggle so much to eat and drink and do everything else, would I have opted to keep the baby?
I had always heard that male partners disappeared in these situations and that the whole relationship would end soon after. …
Every time I used the bathroom, he waited for me and took the sanitary pad to throw it away. This comforted me. I felt accepted. He wasn’t disgusted by my blood. I didn’t have to worry about the practicalities. I stayed focused on the pain I felt in my lower abdomen.
It’s such a false notion that only a husband will act responsibly and care for you — the notion that you should get married in order to have a man by you. No, the truth is that the man who took care of me during that period was one with whom I had what society sees as an illegitimate relationship.
Despite my persistent need to have a woman by my side at this time, I never imagined that my mother could be that woman. Our relationship wouldn’t allow it.
Everything I do goes against everything she believes in. I am in a relationship, which she knows about from Facebook. The idea of being in a relationship was itself too liberal for my conservative family.
The more important point was the future of my very small family, whose escape from my father was brought about by circumstances in which I played a key role.
Our separation from my father made my presence at home a source of strength to my mother. I was the eldest daughter and always supported her. I was the one who encouraged her to leave home when she was still with my father.
We were a family paying the price for choosing our own peace of mind. That price was living in a home beneath our social standing and having much less money to spend than we were previously accustomed.
So I faced a dilemma: If I left them, this might drive them back to my father. Also, if my father learned of this, he might force them to return, arguing that my pregnancy was proof that my mother was unable to handle us on her own.
I closed my eyes to the sight. My son was wrapped in a transparent plastic bag. His heart was beating slower and slower, until it came to a complete stop. I stopped screaming. My mother stopped crying. And I drifted out of consciousness.
I saw blood and wished I were asleep. I wished I hadn’t been awake for that experience, and that I didn’t relive it dozens of times in my nightmares.
I felt my soul escape my body to watch me from above. I was knocking my head against the wall. My sister’s skin was under my nails mixed with her blood. I grabbed at her with a strength I didn’t know I had.
She was crying, my mother screaming. My father was looking for the doctor who had already told us he wouldn’t help until he saw a head coming out of the womb.
“Haram [it’s wrong],” he said, very simply, judging me in my worst moment, as I both pitied and hated myself. From one in the afternoon until 11 at night, he left me to kill my son on my own.
The two doctors were in agreement, saying that the fetus would die. They provided the reports that they told me would allow me to have an abortion in any hospital.
I was allowed an abortion because I am a married woman and because the pregnancy was a risk to my health. They insisted, however, that neither would perform the abortion himself.
The first told me nicely that he doesn’t do abortions, and the second said that he wouldn’t do anything. I went to see a third doctor, but he was religious and said it was haram. His voice joined the first two: Even if I went through labor, I would still have a dead child. I surrendered.
I went home and listened to all the things I didn’t want to hear on that day. “You will be compensated. You will be rewarded. God’s will is never bad,” my family said.
Throughout, I felt my son resisting my body’s attempts to eject him. I was his home, but I was kicking him out. I was his safety, but I was expelling him. I felt him fight to stay alive, as I fought for him to die.
“Just open my stomach and get him out!” I screamed. I felt guiltiest at this point: He was still alive. His heart was still beating. My body wants to get rid of a living baby, a baby I claimed to love beyond belief, a baby whose ultrasound pictures I cherished, a baby whose every heartbeat was precious.
Every two weeks, I’d gone to the doctor just because I wanted to see this baby. But in that moment, I would have done anything just to get rid of him. I just wanted it to be over.
My father ran again through the corridors looking for someone to cut the cord, yelling like a man who was about to lose two lives, one of whom was struggling for his last breath.
Finally, the hospital manager intervened and severed the umbilical cord himself. He refused to give us any documentation of his involvement, or of any other doctor’s in my case, perhaps fearing legal ramifications. Before we left, and based on his request, a friend of my father’s, a gynecologist, came and cleaned my uterus in an operating room.
I walked to the room with blood dripping down my legs. My son was dead, and I was in a room lacking the most basic hygiene. I felt I was a woman having an abortion in a shady backroom clinic in Cairo.
I parted with my placenta and my faith. He departed to a new world, and I remained here for them to blame me for the loss. They forbade newlyweds from visiting me. “It’s a bad omen,” they said. I was faced with judgment from beginning to end. I was made to be guilty for a mistake I never made.
And then, a few months later I found out I was pregnant again and my first reaction was that I couldn’t deal with this.
I carried my pregnancy to term. I have a baby girl who is coping with a chronic disease for which there is no cure. I love her, and I accept her. My pregnancy and labor with her was very different. I continued to hear the same provocative consolations, however, things like, “You see, God rewarded you well.”
Story one struggled with guilt. Story two worried about shame. Story three was hit with religion.
Legal abortion in a culture of tolerance promises to do away with these pains. Pains they are, and they are not the only ones. The issues are real, and compassionate care is necessary.
There is forgiveness from guilt. There is freedom from shame. There is redemption in religion.
But I think that like war, abortion – legal or otherwise, necessary or convenient – would do well to keep its stigma. The barriers should be high, lest death, and life, lessen in sanctity. Like war, abortion should never become an easy option.
Like the reception of soldiers returning from war, however, all depends on a culture and community ready to embrace them.
Most pro-life people I am familiar with in the United States are like this. Media often depicts those angrily protesting in front of abortion clinics. I’m not sure who is more numerous, and there is no necessary distinction.
One can rail against cultural license one moment, and comfort a licentious teenager the next.
Listen to her stories. They may not be as frightful as the ones above. But they are all felt fully, in the moment, as a great war.
War is Hell? Yes. Abortion?
Whatever your answer, heaven is waiting. Consider both carefully in the ranking of priorities.