Pakistan: Abortion pill replaces hot oil and coat hangers

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A new telephone helpline is set to allow women in Pakistan quick access to the abortion pill.

Women On Waves' website (lists hotline numbers in various countries)

The helpline has been set up by Pakistani women’s organisations with support from Dutch activist group Women on Waves. The project is controversial because abortion is illegal in Pakistan. Rebecca Gomperts of Women on Waves says the most important thing is that “you can save a woman’s life here for less than 30 rupees [28 eurocents]”.

Role play
Two women and a man are sitting in a hotel room in Lahore. One of the women wants information about abortion. The other is asking questions and explains how pregnancy can be terminated by using Misoprostol. The man playing the husband listens in the background.

[media:factfile]It is a role-play exercise organised by Women on Waves for the people who will staff the helpline. The Dutch group provides safe abortions in countries where terminations remain taboo.

Unsafe abortions
About 12 trained Pakistani staff on the helpline will provide information on how to use the abortion pill. Misoprostol costs less than 10 eurocents per pill, according to Ms Gomperts. Using the pill within nine weeks of conception causes an abortion in 85 to 90 percent of women and cannot be distinguished from a miscarriage. Most women though are unaware of this.

Nearly 900,000 women undergo illegal and often unsafe abortions every year in Pakistan. They are usually married and already have children. Contraceptives are not easy to come by in Pakistan and are often contrary to religion and culture.

Between 10 and 15 percent of women who undergo unsafe abortions die and each year 200,000 women end up in hospital. Tahira Abdullah, a Pakistani human rights activist with over 30 years’ experience, says most abortions are carried out by untrained quacks. “They use equipment that hasn’t been sterilised, boiling hot oil, coat hangers, sticks. It’s appalling.”

Despite this, 30-year-old Jasmin (not her real name) decided, for personal reasons, to have an abortion five years ago. She was a nurse and aware of the dangers. She got the name of someone who worked as a sweeper at a hospital and was shocked to hear that this woman would perform the termination.

“She told me that all sorts of people brought women to her for abortions, including officials and policemen. She said she performed five or six terminations per day, and asked me why I was so nervous.”

There were enough reasons. “She could puncture the uterus or vagina. There was risk of infection because she was only using one catheter for all those women. I felt so terrible and alone,” Jasmin explains. She took antibiotics afterwards just to be on the safe side. As far as she knows, she has not suffered any ill effects from the procedure.

For the time being, abortion laws will not be relaxed in Pakistan. Human rights activist Khalida Salimi says this means that promoting abortion brings with it huge risks. "We need the political will to introduce it in government hospitals. Otherwise it is senseless. People will be arrested for profanity."

Ms Gomperts says she cannot predict what the reaction to the helpline will be in Pakistan. But she is convinced she’s right: "Information about the abortion pill can save lives every day. It is incredibly important that this information that should be freely available."