The Next Battleground for Abortion Rights: Morocco

Demonstrators hold up a sign showing the portrait of Hajar Raissouni, a Moroccan journalist of the daily newspaper Akhbar El-Youm, with a caption below in Arabic reading "My body, my freedom," as they gather outside a Rabat courthouse that's holding her trial on charges of abortion.

Source FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

The North African country is emerging as a key battleground on abortion, with an increasingly assertive movement seeking a break with conservative laws. 

Beyond Roe vs. Wade: OZY delves into views about abortion around the world. Beyond Roe vs. Wade: OZY delves into views about abortion around the world.

It’s midnight and moonless as a group of women gathers outside the Ministry of Health in Rabat, Morocco. They have assembled to wage war on Morocco’s abortion laws, which prohibit abortion in all cases except when the life of the mother is in immediate danger. Their weapon of choice? Sanitary towels covered in fake blood and slogans they affix to the walls of the ministry.

“No uterus — no opinion.”
“My body, my rules.”
“Abortion for all — women decide.”

A security guard in a baseball cap tells them to stop. He gingerly pulls down some of the pads, but the women put them back up, move to another side of the building and paste more on the walls. They’re part of a growing movement that’s relying on an unorthodox mix of tools — eyeball-grabbing public campaigns, Islam’s tenets, political pressure and health documentaries — to demand that Morocco relax its restrictions on abortion. They’re turning Morocco into the latest battleground for abortion rights, which remain limited in several conservative parts of the world, from Alabama to most parts of Africa.

The Moroccan Society to Fight Illegal Abortion (known by its French acronym, AMLAC) organized a sit-in outside Parliament in June demanding a repeal of Article 449 of the Moroccan Criminal Code, which punishes women who abort unless their life is at risk, and those helping them. Mobilizing for Rights Associates (MRA), a women’s rights group, also participated as observers. Abortion carries a jail term of six months to two years for the woman, while those who help receive even stricter punishment: between five and 10 years in prison. Member of Parliament Amina Talabi — from the Socialist Union of Popular Forces — argues that criminalizing abortions is not only discriminatory, but it also encourages illegal abortions that are often riskier.

Abortion is a right, a women’s right, their choice and their liberty.

Ibtissam “Betty” Lachgar, Alternative Movement for Individual Liberties

AMLAC is also using medical science and mass media to convince skeptics, even at personal risk. A documentary on abortion made in 2015 by AMLAC chief Dr. Chafik Chraïbi with France 24 led to his hospital demoting him. But Morocco’s King Mohammed VI saw the film and ordered a panel to probe concerns around abortion — a step forward for women. And the Alternative Movement for Individual Liberties (MALI in French), the feminist group that stuck sanitary pads on the health ministry’s walls, insists their fight is just getting started.

“The messages with the pads is that women have their period, it is their uterus, their system for reproduction, their body,” says Ibtissam “Betty” Lachgar, the head of MALI. “Abortion is a right, a women’s right, their choice and their liberty. We do not want men, state, politics, doctors or religious people controlling our bodies and sexuality.”

 

These lawyers, doctors and activists know that change won’t come easy. The expert panel set up by the king recommended allowing abortion in the cases of rape, incest and fetal malformation — or when there’s a danger to the mother’s health. In 2016, a bill was brought before Parliament to effect those changes. But it is yet to be passed. “It is hard to tell if there is no political will or if this is just general slowness in the process,” says lawyer Stephanie Willman Bordat, founding partner at MRA.

That the country’s political elite is sitting on the bill isn’t entirely surprising. Morocco is a sexually conservative society with an expectation that a woman will be a virgin when she marries. A child born outside of marriage can end up without a national identity card, which in turn restricts access to school and public health facilities. Contraception is widely available, but sex education in schools is rare. In September, police arrested journalist Hajar Raissouni for attempting an abortion in violation of the current law. Yet the pressure on authorities from rights groups is increasingly evident: Following protests, Raissouni’s trial — scheduled for Sept. 9 — was postponed. 

The arguments against abortion in Morocco center around Islam. But while most schools of Islam consider abortion past 120 days of pregnancy wrong (haram) unless the mother’s life is at risk, the Moroccan activists point out that the Quran and the Hadith — which carry the religion’s supreme rulings — don’t expressly ban abortion.

And while anti-abortion readings of the Quran point to sections that criticize taking any life, abortion-rights groups argue that the current restrictions are also killing people. According to AMLAC, an estimated 600–800 illegal abortions are conducted each day in the country of 36 million people, resulting in 13 percent of all maternal deaths. Not everyone can afford an illegal abortion, which costs around $700 — several months of a schoolteacher’s pay. That’s why 300 newborn babies are abandoned annually in Casablanca, Morocco’s biggest city.

“If we continue to restrict legal abortion, we will force women to resort to clandestine abortions,” Talabi told a Parliament panel in July.

For sure, there’s frustration that even the proposed amendments don’t go far enough — but Chraïbi accepts that Moroccan society is not ready for complete, choice-based abortion rights. That’s why he’s pushing to clarify the proposed legislation to redefine the mother’s health being at risk not only physically but also for “mental health and social health.”

Lachgar advocates for a more militant approach: “It is a patriarchal debate. Male domination. Males controlling our bodies, our choices.”

Others say patience is key. Morocco passed a landmark law criminalizing violence against women last February, five years after the legislation was drafted. “It was the same with the violence-to-women law, which took years to push through,” recalls Bordat.

Meanwhile, the intensity of the protests is growing. MRA publicized the sit-in on Facebook, and Bordat says she was “surprised at how people came out of the woodwork and liked it and shared it.” Together, these women and their campaigns are making it hard for Morocco’s Parliament to ignore their demands. As they’ve shown, they won’t stop until they’ve won.

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