Maternal health researcher says Trump’s health aid sanctions unlikely to affect Pakistan

Zubia Mumtaz doubts United States President Donald Trump will be able to stop abortion aid in Pakistan.

Trump issued an executive order on January 23 that barred U.S. aid to foreign organizations that perform, or discuss abortions. In Pakistan, one abortion service can be administering the miscarriage-inducing and locally-manufactured misoprostol pill — because the pills are locally-made and distributed, Mumtaz doesn’t expect Trump’s order to change anything. As an Associate Professor in the School of Public Health, Mumtaz has worked in women’s reproductive health for nearly 20 years and focuses on barriers to maternal healthcare.

“Will (Trump’s executive order) affect countries like Pakistan? I would say not now in Pakistan,” she said. “Had this happened ten years ago, possibly yes, but now we’ve gotten to a point of no return (in offering medical abortions).”

Misoprostol is one of the ingredients in the medical abortion pill Mifegymiso that was approved by Health Canada last year and is now available in some clinics across Canada. First developed in the mid-1980s to treat ulcers, it was put on the World Health Organization’s essential drug list in 2012 for its use in preventing post-partem hemorrhage. Now, Mumtaz said Pakistani community health workers and midwives consider it an “abortion drug.”

Abortions in Pakistan used to require surgery, but in the last five years, the misoprostol pill was introduced as a cheap, over-the-counter, abortion-inducing drug. The drug is changing the abortion landscape in Pakistan, according to a new study co-authored by Mumtaz.

“The world has moved quite fast and now you have medical abortions,” Mumtaz said. “You just take the misoprostol pill and, lo and behold, you’re done.”

While Mumtaz said that the idea of women as “just a womb” is very powerful in Pakistan, abortion there is not illegal. The law surrounding abortion is unclear, it can be used to save a woman’s life or to provide “necessary treatment,” which is not defined. Some Islamic scholars believe abortions are allowed before ensoulment takes place in the fifth month of fetal development, while others see it at as a sin. Either way, there’s a heavy social stigma against abortion, Mumtaz said.

“It’s assumed that this woman had sex before marriage or outside of sex,” she explained. “Which in that context is very sinful.”

Mumtaz said that it’s frustrating that women’s reproductive rights are being debated in 2017.

“You would have thought by now we’d be over the hump,” she said. “You just have this feeling that you always take two steps forward and one step backwards.

“Women should have control over their bodies,” she said. “The reality is that men think they should control women’s bodies. Historically, in all countries of the world somehow the women’s bodies belong to men.”