TEL AVIV – An article in Foreign Policy magazine states that 40 percent of women in the West Bank have had abortions even though the Palestinian leadership has outlawed it. Many of the women turn to Israel in order to help them avoid the brutal at-home abortion methods they are forced to use, often to prevent themselves from becoming victims of “honor killings.”
A 2007 study conducted by the Palestinian Family Planning and Protection Association (PFPPA) and the U.N. Palestinian relief agency UNRWA found that approximately 40 percent of Palestinian women in the West Bank had undergone an abortion, and 26 percent of those abortions were conducted through unsafe, at-home methods.
More and more Palestinian women are turning to at-home abortion methods, including throwing themselves down staircases and inserting sharp instruments into their bodies. One woman interviewed by Foreign Policy magazine was 14-years-old when she was impregnated by her 32-year-old cousin. She jumped off a nine-foot wall belly first and, despite nearly dying, was told by her doctor that she would have to deliver her dead fetus at home because abortion is illegal in the Palestinian territories.
The article states that even though abortion is illegal in most of the Middle East, what sets Palestinian women apart is that they live in such close proximity to Israel, a country where abortion is completely legal, easily accessible, and even government-funded.
Bashira (not her real name) is from East Jerusalem. She wanted to terminate her fifth pregnancy because she was seeking a divorce from her husband. She went to an Israeli doctor who gave her a prescription for Cytotec, a $5 pill that can be taken to induce abortion up to 12 weeks into a woman’s pregnancy.
“I feel very lucky to live here,” said Bashira, referring to Israel. Like most Palestinians, Bashira wants there to be an independent Palestinian state. Yet for the sake of her rights as a woman, she said, “I prefer to live in Israel under the Israeli government.”
An Israeli-Arab woman who works for the PFPPA recounted that on at least five occasions she asked her doctor for Cytotec for friends and family in the Palestinian territories. “He knew it wasn’t for me,” Atiya (not her real name) said of her doctor, who was aware that she was helping other women.
According to a 2013 study on family planning conducted by UNRWA and Al-Quds University, “The prevailing culture in Palestine views the subordinate status of women to men as the ideal social construction,” meaning that women have little say when it comes to family planning and contraception. The issue is further compounded by the prevalence of honor killings for “unchaste” women.
Atiya recounts that she once brought Cytotec to a woman in the West Bank who had been impregnated by her boyfriend. “He didn’t want to marry her because he wanted to marry a virgin,” said Atiya. “He left her, pregnant, and she knew if her family found out they would kill her.”
Honor killings are incidents in which a woman is killed by family members in order to protect their “good name.” They are one of the main reasons Palestinian women are forced to seek abortions. Stavridis, the PFPPA director, told Foreign Policy the story of a woman who became pregnant by her fiancee. Her husband’s parents told the couple that if she didn’t abort the baby, they would have her killed. She immediately tried several at-home methods, including jumping off of the staircase of her home. Several days later she gave birth to a dead fetus, but suffered such severe medical complications that she and her husband – who were married a month later – were not able to conceive for another five years.
Stavridis is angered by the Palestinian government’s total negligence of women’s rights, and accuses the PA of using Israel as an excuse to ignore the plight of women. “Giving us our rights as women is under the Palestinian Authority’s control,” she says. “They can create a solution. This is at least one thing they do have control over.” She points out that, like abortion, drinking is forbidden by Islam, yet the PA has public programs for alcoholics. “Probably because most of the alcoholics are men,” she said in her interview with Foreign Policy.
Even though the PFPPA is a highly nationalistic organization and as such is determined to see the establishment of a Palestinian state, women like Stavridis still know that they have more rights living under the Israeli government. This is a bitter pill to swallow.
“I hope that Palestine will reach statehood, but also that it will reach the state that Israel has reached regarding women’s rights,” says Stavridis. “Now, it feels like we as Palestinian women are under another occupation – one of our bodies.”