After Tunisia’s independence in 1956, the first president Habib Bourguiba promulgated one of the most revolutionary family law codes in the Arab or Islamic world; “the Code of personal status”. This series of laws aspired to protect women, who were at the time the weak link in Tunisian society.
Considered a pioneering country when it came to women’s rights, Tunisia was the first Arab and African country to legalize the voluntary termination of a pregnancy in 1973. This groundbreaking measure was taken two years before France, during Simone Veil’s advocacy. The Decree of law 73/1973’s explains the reasons and legal context of this procedure:
“Artificial termination of pregnancy is authorized when it occurs in the first three months in a hospital, health establishment, or authorized clinic, by a doctor legally practicing his profession.
After these three months, the artificial termination of pregnancy can also be practiced, when the health of the mother or her mental balance may be compromised by the continuation of the pregnancy or when the unborn child would be likely to suffer from ‘serious illness or infirmity.”
In 1956, Bourguiba found a country ravaged by French colonization, with an illiteracy rate of 84.7% (96% for women and 74.5 for men) and a schooling rate of 30%. Simultaneously, the fertility rate was 6.94 children per woman, and the poverty rate in 1960 was 40%. Back then, Bourguiba considered family planning a first major step to improve the socio-economic situation. Hence, since 1973, Tunisia women, regardless of their marital status, had the right to access a free safe abortion, in one of the public maternity centers.
In a relatively conservative Arab-Muslim society like Tunisia, abortion has never been a taboo topic. This procedure’s perception is due to the culture of reproductive health; free contraceptive methods were introduced in the boomer generation. Not only were there contraceptives, but doctors and nurses were also responsible for explaining the way these contraceptive methods should be used, to mostly illiterate women.
My grandmother’s generation was the first initiated into using contraceptives and abortion. Then, my mother’s generation was able to master the use of these reproductive measures. By the time my generation (Gen Z) arrived, abortion was normal and socially accepted by most Tunisians as an undeniable right. It gives women the right to decide, and also protects single mothers from a society that still looks poorly on out wedlock pregnancies.
I never learned that voluntarily ending a pregnancy was a sin or a crime; abortion was never presented to me as killing a human soul. In school, we learned that an embryo wasn’t a human being before three months, only an ensemble of cells. Beyond three months, the embryo becomes a fetus and is considered a human being.
As a little girl growing up in a society where women had full sexual and reproductive rights, I felt that many older women around me were confident about their bodies. I heard them talking comfortably about themselves or others getting an abortion. When I was 8, my mother got pregnant and didn’t want to keep the baby. She went with my father to the hospital and had an abortion. When she came back, she only told me that the baby was no longer in her tummy, since I was too young to understand. Some years later, as a teenager, she explained abortion as part of the sex talk. My mother told me back then that I should use contraceptives to avoid unwanted pregnancies, but if those means don’t work, abortion is an option.
Knowing that I had a choice made me feel more comfortable about my sexual experiences. I felt safe because I wouldn’t run the risk of being condemned to bear a child just because I have a uterus. ike my male counterparts, I’d be able to enjoy a stress-free sexual life. Having the privilege of choice made me feel full ownership of my body. Thus, I exercised my inherent right of freedom, as a human being.
Besides, abortion can contribute to building healthier and happier societies. Raising unwanted children brings much frustration to both parents, who’d be consciously or unconsciously abusive towards their offspring, according to scientific research that links unintended pregnancies to child abuse. This stress of bearing a burden would increase violence and mental health issues, for both mother and child. It would also lead to higher numbers of homeless abandoned children, and higher rates of juvenile delinquency and crime.
As a young feminist woman, I was stunned when I heard about the Texas abortion ban. It surprised me how, in one of the most powerful and developed countries, women’s rights was still very fragile, and their fate was decided by men. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, American women are victims of about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year. They have the highest rates of skipping needed health care, due to its cost.
Pro-life groups tend to justify the “Texas Heartbeat” Act with a concern for the life of the fertilized egg. In my country, granting free access to abortion arises from the concern about the life of an existing human: the mother. They are carrying the embryo, and considering the context in which she got impregnated, the physical and mental challenges they are and will encounter
once the baby is delivered. Depriving a human being of their freedom goes against natural law and democracy.
In 2017, in Tunisia, between 12,000 and 16,000 voluntary terminations of pregnancies are performed every year, with 62.5% of Tunisian women using contraceptives regularly. These numbers clearly show that abortion became part of healthcare services for Tunisian women, just like it should be for every woman regardless of her age, social, and economic background.