After five years he’s a free man again, the Sudanese gynaecologist Abdulhadi Ibrahim. But his chances of practicing again look slim. Abortion is illegal in Sudan. Dr Ibrahim was jailed for carrying out terminations, but he insists his work saved thousands of lives.
“I don’t regret what I have done for a moment. The years I spent in the prison are the price for saving the lives of thousands of girls and protecting their families. I am fully satisfied, both morally and professionally,” said Dr Abdulhadi Ibrahim, in an interview with Radio Netherlands Worldwide.
Dr Ibrahim was released this month after serving five years in prison for conducting illegal abortions. There were two young unmarried women in his clinic when the security forces stormed in on a dusty afternoon in Khartoum, five years ago. Both patients were pregnant, one with a three months old dead embryo in her uterus.
Abortion in Sudan
In 1991, Sudan amended its Penal Code to expand the circumstances under which abortions are permitted. Abortions are allowed in Sudan either to save a pregnant woman's life or if a woman is pregnant due to rape or incest. Illegal abortions are punishable by up to five years' imprisonment and/or a fine. The 1991 legislation applies mainly to the Islamic north, not to Christian Southern Sudan.
Statistics show that a very small percentage of adult married women in Sudan use modern contraception. The government says it supports contraception as a means of reducing the fertility rate as well as deaths and medical complications caused by induced abortion.
Pregnancy before marriage is devastating in Sudan's traditional society, not only for the woman, but for her entire extended family. Not surprisingly, in their attempts to end unwanted pregnancies desperate young women will do whatever it takes. This often sees them turning to traditional herbal healers, illiterate traditional midwives and even well-meaning but ill-prepared friends.
“The vast majority of them end up with a failed abortion and a dead embryo in the uterus threatening their life. Most of my patients were like this,” says Dr Ibrahim.
Sex before marriage is common place in Khartoum but there is a kind of official state of denial about it. “Safe sex and contraception for unmarried women is an untouchable topic in Khartoum,” says another physician, who prefers not to be named.
There's little discussion in broader society about the issue according to the physician. The government and religious establishment focus on moral and religious values without tackling the practical issues related to sex among young unmarried people.
There are no accurate statistics but indicators suggest that one in four women in Khartoum have sex before marriage. “But when pregnancy happens it is the woman alone who has to bear its consequences,’’ says Dr Ibrahim.
He studied gynaecology and surgery in Great Britain and practiced there for years before returning to Sudan. He says the court found him guilty of failing to report to the police and authorities that he was treating unmarried pregnant women. “That’s not a part of my duties and obligations towards my patients,” he counters.
Dr Ibrahim claims he was the victim of a campaign launched against him by the tabloid media and conservative religious forces. Once this campaign was up and running, he says, there was little room for rational debate. "It is regrettable that the Medical Council of Sudan preferred to keep silent,” he adds.
One of the allegations Dr Ibrahim faced was that he made a fortune by performing abortions. When this is put to him, he laughs. “Most of my patients were young poor female university students from rural backgrounds. For 12 years of my medical career in Sudan I treated half of my patients for free. Many of them got pregnant after being forced to have sex because they needed money. How can you get rich from this kind of patient?”
After being released, Dr Ibrahim is facing the threat of being banned from practicing his profession in the country, but he remains defiant. “That would be unfair,” he says. “I will continue my work in raising public awareness about safe sex and sex education in general. I have saved the lives of thousands of Sudanese women.’