Abortion in Armenia: Legal but stigmatized

Ani Grigoryan

Armenian women have had the right to an abortion since 1955. 

But a strong taboo against premarital sex means single women face illegal restrictions and, at times, even abuse, from doctors when they ask for an abortion.
Women's rights specialists like Anush Poghosyan note that female patients are often judged by doctors and nurses, resulting in discrimination and, at times, unprofessional or inadequate medical treatment.

"We have cases when doctors, in front of everyone, have shouted 'Who is the woman with HIV? She should come to the examination room,'" she says.
"There is also the problem of confidentiality. It is common for medical students to enter the room without asking the patient. And of course all of this has an influence on a woman. Maybe for the doctor she is yet one more patient, but for the woman, it is a completely different situation," Poghosyan, the head of Women's Resource Center NGO, notes.

"In a society where premarital sex is mostly taboo and the tradition of the 'red apple' [girls should be virgins when they marry] remains, the behavior of doctors is even more severe and judgmental when they find out that a woman has broken that tradition," she adds.

That was 29-year-old Nana's experience.

It took six pregnancy tests for Nana (not her real name) to really believe that she was pregnant.

“I always wanted to have a child. I have believed that I’m ready to become a mother since I was 18. But from the very first days of our relationship, my boyfriend told me that if I get pregnant, I should get rid of the child. I told him 'then let’s do it so that I don’t get pregnant, '" Nana says.

Nana is from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. She met her boyfriend Davit during the Velvet Revolution of 2018. They had been together for seven months when Nana learned that she was pregnant.

“I felt nauseous at work. My period was late. And I started to have some suspicions. I went home and started to research my symptoms on the internet. They completely matched the symptoms pregnant women have. I called Davit and told him about my suspicions and asked him to bring pregnancy test. Twenty minutes later he was at my home. He was in a panic, but I was sure that the test would be negative," Nana recalls.

But all three tests showed the same result: two lines, meaning she was pregnant. "I didn’t want to believe it. We decided to take another test in the morning. But the results of the morning tests were the same. Then Davit looked at me and said, ‘You know what to do. We are going to the hospital and that’s it,’" Nana says.

Nana says it happened so fast it was as if she didn't really have a choice. After all, she reasoned at the time, she had agreed at the start of their relationship that she would abort if she got pregnant.

But following through turned out to be more difficult than she expected.

Nana and Davit tried to get an appointment with a doctor who had been recommended at a local clinic, but were unable to. So they waited in reception to see someone else.

“We waited for a very long time in the reception. There were many other people who could hear what I was saying. The worker registered my name and surname and the reason of my visit. The receptionist who was smiling till that moment, stopped and loudly announced why I was there," Nana remembers.

“The other gynecologist came with a very cold expression on her face. The receptionist, pointing her finger at me, told the doctor loudly that I had come for abortion. And everyone turned to look at me,” she says. For Nana, the most shocking was the attitude of doctors toward her.

“I felt that I was surrounded by judges, not doctors. But it was my legal right. They just had to do their job," Nana says.

"But they treat you as if you are a criminal, as if you made a mistake and you need to pay for it."

Abortion is legal in Armenia until the 12th week and doctors are legally required to provide the service. On average, there are between 8000 and 8500 abortions performed every year in the country.

But the Armenian Ministry of Health told Chai Khana that the government has a "negative" attitude toward abortions, with the focus on providing birth control rather than abortion services.

That means it can be difficult for women to receive an abortion, despite the law, Poghosyan notes.

She adds that even though the law allows women to have abortion, very often it is not accessible or women face unnecessary obstacles due to the way the medical staff behaves or treats the women who seek the service.

“It starts from how the health professionals treat the pregnant woman and what questions they address. They try to convince women that it is not the right decision; they even compare abortion with murder. In addition, during the ultrasound examination, they turn on the sound of the beating heart. It definitely affects women,” Poghosyan says.

For Nana, the ultrasound was a shock, not least because she had to watch other women get ultrasounds while she waited her turn.

“I could see and hear the entire process, because only a single curtain was separating me from the woman getting the ultrasound. Right before me there was a forty-year-old woman getting an ultrasound. She said that she got an abortion during a previous pregnancy because the child was female. I started to criticize this woman for having a sex-selective abortion. Of course I didn’t have that right. And then I imagined how people would criticize me for my abortion," Nana recalls.

Seeing the fetus was also unexpected and painful.

"When I sat to have the test, the doctor moved the screen so it was directly in front of me…She knew perfectly well that I came for abortion and that I was already having hard time with that decision, why on earth did I have to see the screen? Already everything was quite cruel. Why I had to see that fetus?” Nana asks, tears in her eyes.

After a final test she had to again explain to the doctor why she decided to have an abortion.  

“I felt that I had to justify myself in front of everyone. Only now I realize that I should have told her it was not her business, I should have said ‘do your job and leave me alone.’ But at that moment I was feeling a lot of stress and I felt like a small child,” Nana says.

“It seemed to me that she was my mother and she looked at me with anger in her eyes, judging me for my mistake. I told her that I wasn’t ready to raise the kid alone, that my boyfriend didn’t want this child and that I’m alone in this city. That I work hard to just to take care of myself and I don’t have the means to take care of an additional person. She listened and told me, ‘What can I tell you, it’s your life.'"

Nana had the abortion the next day. After the procedure, she was put in a room full of pregnant women to wait for the medication wore off. But Nana says listening to all the women speak about their pregnancies and their plans after their babies were born was too much, so she and Davit left. 

Nana never returned to the clinic, not even for the prescribed follow up.

Her experience is far from unique, according to Poghosyan. 

The Armenian Ministry of Health told Chai Khana every patient has the right to receive good medical treatment and if a woman is unhappy with her doctor, she has the right to change physicians. 

Poghosyan argues, however, that it is the responsibility of doctors to learn to treat patients with respect. The Women's Resource Center NGO has even created guidelines for medical workers for trainings on sensitivity to help change the situation.

“We prepared guidelines for medical workers to increase their sensitivity toward different groups of women while working with them. We also plan to organize trainings for them specifically on this topic, to explain to them how they should treat women in a non-discriminating manner, what kind of questions they can ask and what kind of questions they should avoid addressing. Now we plan to send the guideline to the Ministry of Health for accreditation," Poghosyan says.

At the end of the day, she notes, women have the right to expect fair treatment when they go to the doctor.

"This is the right of a woman. She comes to receive treatment, which is to say to have an abortion," Poghosyan says.

"It doesn't matter why or how she got pregnant: it is her body and her choice and she gets to decide whether to have an abortion or not. And if she has decided that she should, then she should get proper and nondiscriminatory treatment from the medical staff."

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