Abortion in Iraq: Challenges and New Horizons

Abortion in Iraq is legally permitted only when the health of the pregnant person is at risk, according to Article 417 of the amended Iraqi Penal Code No. 111 of 1969. This law imposes a penalty of imprisonment for up to one year and a fine of no more than one hundred dinars on any woman who induces her own abortion or enables another to do so with her consent. The same penalty applies to anyone who deliberately aborts a woman with her consent. The penalty is reduced if the woman was raped, but the act remains a crime.

Organizations like Nujeen work to challenge this reality, promoting women’s bodily autonomy and equality in family and community structures. As MARA-Med, we sat with Nujeen team to learn more about the situation in Iraq and their work.

1. Can you tell us more about the legal context of abortion in Iraq and the challenges women face in accessing safe and legal abortion services?

Women seeking abortions suffer from stigma, blackmail, and severe complications from unsafe procedures. Even when the fetus has no heartbeat, women are not given medication and must be admitted to government hospitals for 24-hour observation. This process, which could be done at home, is intrusive and strips women of dignity, as they cannot have their partners with them for support. Abortion is not considered part of reproductive health, and only cases where the pregnant person’s physical wellbeing is threatened are screened by a committee of gynecologists. If two committee members do not approve, the abortion cannot proceed, and other cases are not even discussed.

2. You work on abortion access in Iraq. What inspired you to do this work?

Our vision is to democratize family and community structures by ensuring women have the autonomy to make choices about their bodies. We envision women and girls who can lead, make choices, and exercise their right to say no. Our work is inspired by the many vulnerable women and girls who have died from unsafe abortions or suicided because they could not access safe abortion services. We have witnessed ISIS’s attacks on Yazidi women and girls, leading to pregnancies without their consent, and seen many of them kill themselves due to lack of support. We have also encountered people unable to raise children due to various reasons but forced to do so because they could not access safe abortions. We believe every person has the right to choose about their body and life, and to have access to comprehensive healthcare, including safe abortion, regardless of the reason. Our inspiration comes from these vulnerable women and girls who have no voice, and our vision of a democratic, healthy community where everyone has access to their rights.

3. How does the political and cultural landscape in Iraq influence conversations and policies surrounding abortion rights and access? How is abortion discussed in public and political discourse, if ever discussed?

Iraq’s political scene is heavily influenced by Islamic political forces, some of which are armed. These forces often launch campaigns against gender-related issues, viewing them as moral threats that could destroy family and religious values. Since abortion rights fall within the concept of gender, these forces accuse any institution or individual advocating for these rights of promoting external agendas to destroy Iraqi community values. However, moderate political forces and numerous civil society organizations, especially in the Kurdistan Region, defend these issues as integral to human rights.

There is a significant threat from conservative forces attempting to persuade the Federal Supreme Court in Baghdad to annul progressive laws passed by the Kurdistan Regional Parliament, such as the law against domestic violence, arguing that these laws conflict with the Iraqi constitution. More details on this issue are provided in our answers to other questions.

4. What are some of the key initiatives or campaigns your organization is involved in to improve abortion access in Iraq?

Our organization, Nujeen, has formed a coalition of 12 feminist organizations to campaign for the legal amendment regarding abortion in Iraq. The campaign, called “Briyar Briyara Taya” (The Choice is Yours), advocates for expanding the cases eligible for safe and legal abortion. The campaign includes social media, TV, radio, IEC materials, workshops, press conferences, and meetings. The coalition is not only advocating through the campaign but also drafting a legislative amendment proposal to present to the highest authorities to broaden the cases allowed for safe and legal abortion.

5. How do you navigate barriers and opposition from conservative groups while advocating for abortion rights?

We map stakeholders into two categories: positive stakeholders, including civil institutions with secular and liberal orientations, and negative stakeholders, including conservative groups, Islamic political parties, and religious institutions. We engage positive stakeholders to unify an open, rational discourse and confront negative stakeholders through dialogue. We emphasize that the Iraqi Penal Code, over half a century old, needs updating to reflect contemporary realities. Regarding abortion rights, we highlight that Islamic jurisprudence permits abortion under certain conditions, advocating for legal reforms based on this perspective.

6. Can you share any personal anecdotes or stories that highlight the importance of safe and legal abortion access in Iraq?

On April 4, 2023, in Baghdad, a 21-year-old woman died from heavy bleeding following an unsafe abortion performed by an unlicensed midwife. She sought the abortion to avoid being killed by her family for being pregnant out of wedlock. This tragedy underscores the critical need for accessible safe abortion services in Iraq to prevent such deaths and safeguard women’s health and lives.

7. Are there any recent developments or changes in policies related to abortion access in Iraq that you find particularly promising or concerning?

There are institutional frameworks being established to support women’s rights, including abortion rights. These frameworks include the Strategy to Combat Gender-Based Violence, the National Strategy to Empower Iraqi Women until 2030, and national plans aligned with UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (Women, Peace, and Security). These initiatives derive their strength from the Iraqi Constitution, which mandates gender equality and equal opportunities, and from international agreements signed by Iraq.

8. How can individuals and organizations outside of Iraq support your efforts to improve abortion access in the country?

Individuals and organizations outside Iraq can support our efforts by donating to and funding organizations working on abortion access in Iraq. Sharing experiences and best practices can also guide our advocacy and implementation strategies to improve abortion access and protect women’s rights in Iraq.

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