Turkmenistan’s abortion ban paves the way for bribery

The number of abortions in Turkmenistan has not decreased despite a recently enforced ban, as many women are now paying bribes to terminate their unwanted pregnancies, women and doctors say.

Just days after the authoritarian country’s new president – Serdar Berdymukhammedov – succeeded his father and took power in March, the government unveiled a law effectively banning abortions after five weeks of pregnancy unless they pose serious health risks to the woman mother or child.

The law – originally passed in 2015 but never published or enforced – caught everyone by surprise, the authorities said Saglyk (health) website operated by Turkmen activists and medical professionals abroad.

Women were barred from the front seats of vehicles. Authorities have banned women from wearing heavy makeup and using eyelash extensions or false nails. Breast implants and lip augmentation were also banned.

The law shortens the period during which women can terminate an unwanted pregnancy without health reasons from 12 weeks to five weeks.

A Turkmen doctor specializing in reproductive health issues has criticized the law, saying most women don’t even know they’re pregnant for the first five weeks.

The law allows exceptions for certain health issues, but it prescribes that such an exemption can only be granted by a special medical commission, after undergoing a series of medical tests, which ultimately delay the termination of pregnancy and increase the health risks for the mother.

Citing multiple patients and medical sources, RFE/RL correspondents in Turkmenistan say the ban has paved the way for more corruption in women’s clinics and hospitals.

The sources said women who want to terminate a pregnancy pay bribes to obstetricians who falsely register the patient’s visit as a screening or consultation.

The patient officially pays a consultation fee and then “separately provides bribes for an abortion,” they added.

In Turkmenistan, where corruption is rampant in almost every field, people say “every problem can be solved with money,” a source said.

The amount of the bribe for an abortion ranges from $100 to $500, depending on how far along the pregnancy is, medical sources in the city of Mary said, adding that it’s cheaper if the patient has one in the first few months visit doctor.

It also varies in different cities and regions. At a women’s health center in Lebap province, a source said patients pay up to $340 in bribes for an abortion in the later stages of pregnancy.

Limited access to contraceptives

The abortion ban comes as a significant number of women of childbearing age in Turkmenistan lack access to contraception, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA), which aims to improve reproductive and maternal health worldwide.

According to UNPFA, there are still “about 160,000 women [in Turkmenistan] aged 15 to 49 who want to prevent or delay their pregnancy but are not using modern contraceptives.”

The reasons are different for each woman, ranging from a lack of information about services to a lack of parental, spouse or community support, as well as the ability to make choices or purchase contraceptives agency said.

In the conservative society of Turkmenistan, almost 60 percent of women cannot decide for themselves those fundamental issues – contraception and abortion – that affect their lives and health.

Working women in Turkmenistan must provide company management with a written agreement that they will not wear tight-fitting clothing or use heavy make-up.

Abortion is frowned upon by many older Turkmen, but the younger generation has a more liberal attitude towards it. Turkmens typically have large families, but younger, urban Turkmens have fewer children, with some blaming economic hardship for shrinking family sizes.

Turkmenistan’s de facto abortion ban has gone largely unnoticed by the media, as it was revealed at the same time as many other restrictions affecting women’s lives.

Women have been banned from the front seats of vehicles in everything from private cars to public transport. Police across the country have stopped and fined drivers who defied the ban, even when the female passenger was a family member.

Authorities have also banned women from wearing heavy makeup and using eyelash extensions or false nails. Breast implants and lip augmentations have been banned, as has eyebrow tinting – something that has become popular among Turkmen women in recent years.

In addition, working women must provide management with a written commitment not to wear tight clothing or use heavy makeup.

The bans came without any official announcement or explanation from the government. Women learned about the measures from their employers or from the police, who began enforcing the ban in late March and early April.

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