Remarking on a topic not often discussed openly in Kyrgyzstan, a deputy health minister said last week that abortion is the number one form of birth control in the country and the numbers are rising.
Back in the Soviet Union, after 1955, abortions were legal and free, while access to birth control was difficult and highly unreliable. (One study estimates there were almost 6 million abortions in the Soviet Union in 1988 alone.) These days, borders are open and pharmacies are well-stocked. Yet a lack of education and youth-friendly medical services means abortions -- still legal in Kyrgyzstan if performed in a clinic – are a highly popular method of family planning.
While good statistics are hard to come by, experts have no doubt the numbers are staggering. According to some estimates, “on average, by the age of 22, a woman in Kyrgyzstan has had one abortion. By the time she is 30.7 she has had two. By the time she is 36, she has had three,” says the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in its 2009/2010 National Human Development Report.
“I would say the real number of abortions in the country is much higher. There are many abortions that are performed in private clinics and are not registered,” Dr. Meder Omurzakov, the assistant representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Bishkek, told EurasiaNet.org.
The UNDP study cites a local professor claiming that 70 percent of pregnancies end in abortion.
As the quality of medical services in the post-Soviet era declines, the procedure is also getting more dangerous.
“Access to safe abortions in Kyrgyzstan is limited because of a lack of knowledge and skills among health providers. And there are no clinical protocols for safe abortions,” said Omurzakov. “We are concerned that women still use abortions as a method for regulating fertility.”
Research published this year by the Open Society Youth Initiative underscored that young people in Kyrgyzstan have difficulty accessing information about reproductive health, while unwanted pregnancies and the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are on the rise.
One obstacle [to getting information and medical services] is the stigma, awkwardness and moral judgments associated with this set of topics. The latter applies even to the country’s medical personnel: A recent survey by a Danish aid organization found that 50 percent of doctors and nurses believe that HIV-positive people have been singled out for divine punishment.
The UNFPA has long lobbied for better sexual and reproductive health education in Kyrgyzstan, “sometimes encountering resistance from educators and parents alike,” says the Youth Initiative report. [Disclaimer: EurasiaNet.org and the Open Society Youth Initiative both operate under the auspices of the Open Society Foundations.]
Health care reforms and changes to school curricula are doing less, rather than more, to improve young people’s access to information and treatment.
In this climate, it’s not a surprise that the number of abortions is also thought to be on the rise.