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Morocco: Criminalization of abortion has devastating impact on the rights of women and girls

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The Moroccan state is failing to meet its obligations to ensure accessible, affordable and good quality sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion, forcing women and girls into dangerous situations and violating their human rights, said Amnesty International today.

A new report titled My life is ruined: The need to decriminalize abortion in Moroccodocuments how the criminalization of abortion in Morocco, even in cases when pregnancy results from rape, has devastating consequences for women and girls. Facing threats of imprisonment, many are compelled to clandestinely seek dangerous methods to terminate pregnancies. Those unsuccessful are coerced into carrying pregnancies to term, facing additional risks of prosecution under laws criminalizing sexual relations outside of marriage which exacerbate social exclusion and poverty, all while enduring the painful aftermath of failed abortion attempts.

This report features interviews with 33 women who sought abortion, as well as additional interviews with Moroccan NGOs working on women’s rights, legal and medical professionals. Despite sending letters to the Moroccan authorities in March and November 2023, and again in January 2024, presenting the report’s findings and seeking their response for inclusion in the report, no replies had been received at the time of publication. The report is being launched alongside a campaign to demand the decriminalization of abortion in Morocco. 

“No state should dictate pregnancy decisions and deny women and girls essential sexual and reproductive health services including abortion that they are entitled to under international law. Morocco’s discriminatory laws, policies and practices deny women their right to autonomous decision-making and perpetuate a social climate that forces women and girls to continue with pregnancy regardless of consequences and fosters violence, poverty and systemic gender discrimination,” said Amjad Yamin, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Moroccan organizations have for years called upon the Moroccan authorities to decriminalize abortion and ensure that nobody is mistreated, humiliated, degraded or at risk of criminal sanction or social exclusion for seeking or obtaining an abortion. This report and campaign build on those efforts and reiterate that under international law, everyone who needs abortion should be able to access it with respect to their privacy, confidentiality and with informed consent. Affordable and accessible comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services for all, especially those with low incomes or living in poverty, must be provided through the public health system.” 

“We can’t help women. Our hands are tied.”

The Moroccan Penal Code prohibits abortion unless it’s conducted by a licensed doctor or surgeon and deemed necessary to safeguard the woman’s health or life. Those undergoing or attempting abortion can face imprisonment ranging from six months to two years, along with fines, as well as additional prison sentences under provisions criminalizing sexual relations outside of marriage. 

Laws prohibiting the dissemination of abortion-related information further restrict access to crucial healthcare resources, denying women the ability to make informed decisions about their pregnancies.  “Inciting abortion” by any means, including through public speech or distributing related materials, carries penalties of up to two years in prison and/or fines.

Medical professionals performing abortions outside the law risk losing their licenses. Providers, if subpoenaed, must also testify and disclose information about abortions they are aware of, thus compromising patient confidentiality. 

These restrictions, compounded by the absence of medical guidelines or protocols on the provision of lawful abortions, leave many women without a legal and safe path to abortion.

One doctor told Amnesty International: “What can we do as doctors? Nothing. We can’t help women. Our hands are tied. We’re frustrated because we can’t give women the help they want.”

Herbs, chemicals and physical violence: Unsafe and ineffective

Women are most often left with no choice but to pursue unregulated, unsafe and often expensive abortions in secret. Women described resorting to a range of dangerous abortion methods including misusing pharmaceuticals, ingesting hazardous chemical mixtures and even physical violence, either self-inflicted or inflicted by others. Some women even attempted to end their own lives. Four women interviewed by Amnesty International required emergency hospital treatment for serious health complications resulting from unsafe self-induced attempts.

Farah, whose real name has been withheld to protect her identity, was raped by a male colleague when she was unconscious as a result of a diabetic attack. Two months later she found out she was pregnant and sought assistance from a gynaecologist who refused to perform an abortion.  Her boss suspended her to avoid what he perceived as reputational harm to his business if she was to be prosecuted for sexual relations outside of marriage.

Farah tried terminating her pregnancy by herself but ultimately was forced to carry through the pregnancy to term despite suffering injuries and an infection. She told Amnesty International:

“I took all kinds of herbs and anything else that you can drink to have an abortion.  I bought herbs from an herbalist, drank them, and got unbearable pains and threw up. I felt that my intestines were being torn apart but I did not have an abortion. One time, I went to my room, took off my clothes and inserted a long stick into my vagina and turned it in all directions, but all I got was a big wound and unbearable pain…. For more than five months I tried everything, to no avail. I even considered suicide.”

Morocco’s insufficient response to violence against women fosters a culture of impunity, enabling perpetrators of rape, intimate partner violence and sexual harassment to operate freely. Ten women told Amnesty International they became pregnant due to rape, perpetrated by strangers, neighbours, boyfriends, or husbands. Rape victims’ access to a remedy is undermined by harsh Penal Code penalties for sexual relations between unmarried people. 

Criminalization and stigmatisation of abortion in Morocco also impact women who have unwanted or unintended pregnancies due to contraception failure, lack of access to contraception, or economic deprivation. 

“Women in Morocco must be enabled to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights through access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services including modern contraceptives and safe abortion,” said Saida Kouzzi, Founding Partner at Mobilising for Rights Associates Amnesty International’s campaign partners. 

Cruelty and discrimination against unmarried women 

Morocco’s Penal Code penalizes sexual relations between unmarried individuals with one month to one year in prison, while adultery carries a sentence of one to two years. This not only leads to social exclusion but also exacerbates economic exclusion for women compelled to carry pregnancies to term. Women who have been imprisoned for such offences and have a criminal record also face additional barriers and stigma seeking employment and often face social isolation. 

Ouiam, whose real name has been withheld to protect her identity, is a widow with a child, who was imprisoned for having sexual relations outside of marriage. She also unsuccessfully attempted to induce an abortion herself. She said:

“As an unwed mother, I live in terror in my village, no one speaks to me… The people of the village treat me worse than ever.”

Several women interviewed described being verbally, physically, or sexually abused during their abortion experience. 

The children of unmarried women forced to carry their pregnancy to term are denied legal identity due to laws that only recognize paternal filiation within legal marriages. The Family Code denies these children the right to bear the name of their biological father or receive financial support or inheritance, fostering poverty and discrimination against them. Furthermore, the Civil Status Code fails to guarantee unmarried women the right to obtain a family booklet, essential for registering birth and obtaining official documents to access basic services such as healthcare, education, legal aid and social benefits.

“The courageous women sharing their heartbreaking stories in this report inspire and demand action. It’s high time for the Moroccan authorities to prioritize women’s sexual and reproductive rights and shatter state silence and inaction surrounding abortion. They must urgently adopt laws that protect reproductive rights and autonomy, decriminalize abortion and ensure equal access to comprehensive healthcare including safe abortion for all women and girls,” said Stephanie Willman Bordat, Founding Partner of Mobilising for Rights Associates (MRA), Amnesty International’s campaign partner.

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Amnesty International.

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