YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia—Neighbors think it is some sort of youth activities center. The unmarked modest farmhouse surrounded by lush rice paddies sits in relative isolation along a straight and narrow lane on the outskirts of this Javanese city famed as a center of learning. A sinewy young man guards the entrance. Inside, a windowless room equipped with two laptops, four smartphones and a whiteboard serves as the command center.
“We’re pretty sure the government knows of our existence,” said Emilda Rizky, “but they don’t want to take any action against us.” Rizky, hair clipped stylishly short and wearing jeans, is the spokeswoman for Samsara, a small volunteer organization that provides the only abortion counseling service in Indonesia, a country with highly restrictive abortion laws and harsh penalties for violators.
I visited Samsara recently while researching a story on the alarmingly high abortion rates in several Southeast Asian countries. Indonesia is a particularly perplexing case study. As a rule, Muslim countries usually have comparatively low abortion rates, but Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, has one of the highest abortion rates in the world. More than 2 million abortions are performed here each year, a rate of 37 for every 1,000 women of child-bearing age.
In Egypt and Turkey, the rate is about 15 per 1,000—or slightly lower than the 16.9 rate in the United States. Theocratic Iran has an estimated abortion rate of 7.5 per 1,000 women. Interestingly, abortion is highly restricted in Iran, but in the name of economic development, Iran’s ayatollahs have initiated a family planning program that is often described as a model for the developing world. Experts attribute Iran’s low fertility and abortion rates to the widespread use of government-subsidized contraceptives.
What I found in Indonesia—in addition to a pervasive reluctance to talk about this taboo topic—is that while public opinion and the law take a consistently rigid stance against abortion, Islam offers a much more pragmatic approach.
Islamic jurisprudence does not encourage abortion, but unlike the Catholic Church, it does not absolutely forbid it. Scholars of the Hanafi school of Islamic law, the most widely followed of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence in the Sunni world, generally accept that abortion is allowable within 120 days of conception. In Indonesia, where the Shafi’i school is predominant, the ulema (religious scholars) agree that abortion is allowed within forty days of conception—this reflecting the commonly held belief that Allah instills the fetus with a soul on the fortieth day.
Opinion varies widely on permissible grounds for abortion. Almost all religious scholars agree that abortion is allowed to save the life of the mother. A 2005 study in Indonesia found surprising tolerance among Muslim clerics for terminating a pregnancy in the event of contraceptive failure or when an unwanted pregnancy would result in severe economic or psychological stress.
Anti-abortion activists in Indonesia—many of them religious fundamentalists—are quick to blame the growing demand for abortions on promiscuity among increasingly secularized youth and Western cultural influences. Studies of Indonesian women seeking abortions do not shed much light on the nature of their religious belief, but they do show that nearly two-thirds are married, and almost half already have at least two children.
Inna Hudaya, who founded Samsara in 2008 after she survived a dangerous back-alley abortion, sees a different reality. “Women in hijab also have unwanted pregnancies,” she says, referring to women who wear traditional Muslim head covering. “When these women come to us, they often have this feeling of guilt. We explain to them what the (Islamic) scholars say. Most of them have never heard this; it helps them make their decision.” Samsara does not provide abortion services, only advice and information. It must walk a very fine line. “We have to get our message out, but at the same time we try not to get much attention on national media,” said Hudaya. “We don’t share our address.”
The Indonesian government’s willingness to overlook Samsara’s activities speaks volumes about the prevailing mindset on abortion: loud public condemnations of abortion on moral and religious principle, but a willingness to tolerate the practice as long as it is kept in the deep shadows. Despite the threat of long prison sentences for anyone providing or receiving an abortion, the fact that more than two million abortions are performed each year suggests it’s pretty easy to obtain one.
In Jakarta, I had no trouble finding my way to what appeared to be a clean, safe gynecology practice willing to provide on-the-spot service for about $400. I didn’t even have an address. A taxi driver, who incorrectly assumed that the young translator working with me was pregnant, knew the place.
For Indonesian women not living in large metropolitan areas like Jakarta, or those who can’t afford the $400 fee, it can be harder. Often, the first step is an herbal concoction generically referred to as jamu. Easily and legally purchased in grocery stores, pharmacies and street stalls, jamu is a folk remedy for a “late period.” If swallowing jamu doesn’t work—and it usually doesn’t—the next step is a visit to a dukun, or traditional healer (or shaman) who specializes in “deep massage” or other more intrusive techniques. Frequently, this results in a botched or partial abortion that requires an emergency visit to a hospital for a proper surgical abortion to save the mother’s life. The number of serious complications related to botched abortions is not known, but Indonesia’s Ministry of Health estimates that about 30 to 50 percent of maternal deaths in Indonesia are the result of unsafe abortions.
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The relative ease of obtaining an abortion in Indonesia—safe or otherwise—does not explain the extraordinarily high numbers. Usually the opposite is true. The Netherlands, which ruled Indonesia back when it was known as the Dutch East Indies, has some of the world’s most liberal abortion laws and a remarkably low abortion rate.
Under President Sukarno, who led Indonesia to independence in 1945, large families and population growth were encouraged as a matter of national prestige. But priorities changed after Sukarno was deposed in 1967. The new leader, Suharto, recognized the need to curb explosive population growth. Nationwide family planning policies were introduced. Statistically, this was a huge success—the fertility rate was cut in half—but some measures were quite harsh. Forced sterilization was not uncommon, and occasionally the military was used to introduce family planning techniques to villagers. “The motivation was not to empower women, but to strengthen the economy, to make more money,” said Ninuk Widyantoro, one the country’s pioneering reproductive health activists.
Abortion remained illegal but was tolerated as long as it was called something else—menstrual regulation was the preferred term. Funding from USAID helped make family planning and menstrual regulation widely available, Widyantaro told me. That lasted until the Reagan administration and the rise of religious conservatives in the United States. At the same time, Sukarno’s grip on power was slipping and his political opponents, mainly Islamist groups, saw popular misgivings about family planning and abortion as an opportunity to undermine the regime.
Although reliable statistics are hard to come by, it appears that when funding for family planning dried up, the fertility rate remained about the same—2.4 children per women—but abortion numbers began to climb.
On a recent return visit to Indonesia, I made a point of seeking out religious experts. In particular, I wanted to understand the thinking behind a 2005 fatwa issued by the Indonesia Ulemas Council (MUI) that appeared to open the door for legalized abortion. Although an MUI fatwa would not be legally binding, it normally carries great weight. Slamet Effendy Yusuf is an Islamic scholar who serves on the MUI and was a member of parliament for more than decade. He told me that the moderate tone of the 2005 fatwa was a fair reflection of how the majority of Indonesians view the abortion question.
“Indonesians are moderate in their thinking and Islam here is quite moderate,” he said. “Most of the (Islamic) experts agreed that abortion is permissible under certain circumstances.” He blamed a recent hardening of attitudes on the growing influence of Saudi-funded “Wahhabists” in Indonesia. Asrorun Naim Sholeh, secretary of the MUI’s fatwa council, pointed out that while almost all of Indonesia’s religious scholars agreed that abortion was permissible to save a woman’s life and many agreed that rape and “genetic deficiency” of the fetus were also permissible grounds, they strongly disagreed with the approach of “pro-choice” groups in the West: “The idea that abortion is the right of a woman—this is very wrong according to our view,” he said.
One group that was not pleased with 2005 fatwa is the Indonesian branch of Hizbut Tahrir, a controversial organization whose stated goal is the establishment of a global caliphate. In particular, Hizbut Tahrir’s scholars took exception to what seemed to them an improper government intrusion in family planning decisions that they believed should belong solely to a husband and wife (but mainly the husband). They also quibbled with the fatwa’s view that rape was a permissible ground for abortion, arguing that existing provisions in Islamic law adequately dealt with this situation.
“We were unhappy with the fatwa, but we let it go,” Muhammad Ismail Yusanto, the group’s spokesmen in Jakarta, told me. Muhammadiya is another influential Islamic group with century-old roots in Indonesia. It describes itself as a socio-religious reform movement, and many of its 30 million members are active in politics. I spoke with Rahmawati Husein, a university professor and former vice president of the group’s women’s branch. “Abortion is not a religious problem,” she insisted. “It’s a social problem.” Or to put it another way, abortion is not an Islamic problem; it’s a political problem.
The 2005 fatwa clearly gave Indonesia’s politicians the green light to update anti-abortion laws that have been on the books since the Dutch colonial period of the early twentieth century, but the politicians, wary of the social taboos and the rising power of religious fundamentalists, dithered. A new health law in 2009 made a modest adjustment to the existing law, allowing what it delicately refers to as “a certain medical procedure” when a women’s life is in danger—but only after her husband gives his permission.
The word “abortion” is not mentioned in the new health law. The Indonesian Ministry of Health continues its refusal to tally abortion numbers and most members of the public are unaware of the country’s unusually high abortion rate. This seems to suit politicians and policymakers—if they acknowledged reality, they’d be forced to do something about it.
Pulitzer Center intern Ardinny Razania assisted with research for this article.