Ms. Murni, 42, already had five children when she discovered she was pregnant. With her youngest child just 18 months old, she decided she could not cope with another baby. She swallowed 10 packets of traditional herbs under the mistaken belief that this would cause an abortion. However, the traditional medicine caused her to develop severe headaches. When she found out the medicines could not help her to abort, she began to worry about the effect on the foetus.
Although abortion is illegal in Indonesia, Ms. Murni’s friends finally convinced her to seek an abortion at a public hospital in Jakarta which provides services informally to married women. Ms Murni was one of the lucky ones. Women who are unmarried or cannot afford the USD$180 abortion fee are forced to turn to untrained backyard operators, where they risk their lives by undergoing dangerous, unhygienic procedures to terminate unwanted pregnancy.
Research conducted by the Women’s Health Foundation shows that 76 percent of the women who sought an abortion at one of Jakarta’s leading teaching hospitals only did so after trying other dangerous methods. The study of 500 women’s patient records, interviews with women and health providers, reveals most of the women had tried to induce abortion by drinking traditional herbal medicine.
Chair of the Women’s Health Foundation Dr. Ninuk Widyantoro said although 85 percent of the women surveyed had received at least a high school education, they relied on natural methods of contraception. This highlights the large unmet needs for reliable contraceptive methods and the dangerous impacts on women’s health when they desperately try to induce abortion using traditional herbs.
“When they experience an unwanted pregnancy they are so desperate,” she said. “Many know it’s not good for their own health but they are desperate and they don’t know where to go.”
The situation is even riskier for those who go to backstreet clinics.
“It’s very dangerous,” Dr. Widyantoro said. “We don’t know what methods they use and they charge even higher fees. There’s no guarantee of safety.”
Under Indonesia’s Penal Code, a woman who intentionally terminates her pregnancy, or asks someone to do so, can be sentenced to up to four years’ jail.
Dr. Widyantoro said legalising abortion would help save many lives and enable groups like the Women’s Health Foundation to regulate abortion providers and create safer health services for women.“The illegal status of abortion does not stop women from trying to have an abortion. They will try to find their own ways, even though they will have to risk their own lives,” she said.
The Women’s Health Foundation’s research is part of the International Conference on Population and Development +15 project, a monitoring and research project coordinated by the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) which assesses progress on women’s health in 12 countries. ARROW is a women’s regional NGO committed to promoting and protecting women’s health rights and needs, particularly in the area of women’s sexuality and reproductive health.