by ALIYA HAQVERDI | The Institute for War & Peace Reporting

Posted  18 July 2012

BAKU, Azerbaijan –¬†Women’s rights activists in Azerbaijan are worried about a proposal to ban abortions. The proposal was introduced by Hadi Rajabli, chairman of the Azerbaijani parliament’s social policy committee and a member of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan party.

“In many countries of the world, including China, Iran and Islamic states, abortion is regarded as murdering a human being. The destruction of unborn infants in their mothers’ wombs is not justified on humanitarian or religious grounds,” he said. “We therefore believe that such a ban could be introduced in Azerbaijan.”

Under current law, abortion is legal up to the 12th week of pregnancy, and under exceptional circumstances, until the 22nd week.

Azerbaijan, along with Armenia and Georgia, has historically had some of the highest abortion rates in the European region, according to the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, the use of modern contraceptives is low in these countries. This can be traced back to when Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union and contraceptives were not widely available. In fact, abortion was the most common form of birth control during the Soviet era.

Women’s rights advocates say that many women here are still unfamiliar with various means of contraception.

Matanat Azizova, head of the Women’s Crisis Center, believes the proposed ban would be disastrous. “There will be illegal abortions, causing death, sterility, various illnesses and so on,” she said. “It will also be a good way of fostering corruption, pregnant women will be able to pay doctors for a document stating that abortion is necessary on health grounds.”

The debate here has also been fueled by the issue of using abortion as a means of sex selection. The practice of terminating female fetuses has led to a significant imbalance in the country’s population, with 112 live male births to every 100 live female births. Azizova acknowledges that the problem exists, but says a blanket ban on abortions is no way to deal with the issue.

“International organizations have urged Azerbaijan to address the selective abortion problem which unfortunately exists here. But they (national authorities) have decided that the easiest route to fixing this is a ban, just so that they don’t have to think about it,” she said.

Ulviya Mammadova, a scholar at the Women’s Human Rights Training Institute in Azerbaijan and a well-known rights activist, also opposes a ban. “In practice, it will just create new problems, given the lack of social protections for women and low wages earned by young mothers,” she said. “Corruption and the lack of an effective health-care system will lead to illegal abortions at sky-high prices, with no way of holding doctors to account. There will be more abandoned children, and maternal mortality will increase.”

Only 20 of the 135 members of Azerbaijan’s parliament are female, and right activists like Mammadova worry that the concerns of women will not get a proper hearing if Rejebli’s proposal is adopted.

On the other hand, some young women, like Jamila Mammadova, 20 and a university student, are in favor of imposing a ban. “Termination of a pregnancy is a terrible sin,” she said. “I can’t see how this law will run into any problems with our customs and traditions.”

Islam, which plays a major role in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, strictly forbids abortion. But some religious leaders, like Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, imam of Baku’s Friday mosque and chairman of the Center for the Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Confession, say they are better ways of dealing with the issue than an outright ban.

“In countries like ours, bans are counterproductive and often result in the opposite of what was intended,” he said. “It will create an even greater tolerance of corruption, a rise in primitive forms of termination, an underground abortion industry, and protection rackets surrounding it.”