PAKISTAN – Notes from the field: political norm change for abortion in Pakistan

Anand Cerillo Sharma, Jina Dhillon, Ghulam Shabbir, Anna Lynam

Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters, 2019;27(2), 1 March (Open access)


This commentary describes positive political norm change on abortion despite a restrictive abortion law. As we describe it, the approach in Pakistan has involved careful efforts to maintain government ownership, leadership, and accountability for safe abortion care and service delivery by Pakistani health authorities early and throughout, with technical support from civil society as requested. This commentary suggests that careful collaboration and mutual support by NGOs working on expanding access to abortion can have a lasting and efficient impact on improving political norms and government ownership over abortion care. In most restrictive settings, political norms may be extremely challenging to address due to the institutionalised nature of abortion stigma and resistance, and NGOs can spend many years of resources trying unsuccessfully to challenge and eliminate these barriers. The experience in Pakistan has been a nontraditional approach to political norm change, as it starts by centring the issue of unsafe abortion squarely within the authority and responsibility of the Pakistani government to avert maternal deaths, within the current legal parameters. Emphasis on the public health needs for safe abortion care and current government obligations in Pakistan, as we describe, has led to increased dialogue and discussion about the need for further reforms by government stakeholders who were previously less willing to meaningfully address this health topic. We believe this approach demonstrates significant promise for future progressive change, and we hope this information will be a valuable resource for others working in the field.