Home / Knowledge Hub / Events

Change in UAE law on abortion eases consent rules

A recent amendment to an existing UAE law has made it easier for medical professionals to conduct an abortion if the mother's life is in danger. In the following article, written by litigation lawyers Hadiel Hussein and Nadine Mukhtar for Khaleej Times outline how this significant change puts pregnant woman in charge of their health. 

Understanding the Law
Federal Decree-Law No. 4 of 2016 concerning Medical Liability (the “Law”), as amended in late 2023 by Federal Decree-Law No. 18 of 2023 (the “Amendments”), holistically addresses the liability of medical practitioners (“Practitioners”) in the performance of their duties in the United Arab Emirates, according to applicable rules and regulations of the medical profession. The Law emphasises the duties which must strictly be upheld by Practitioners to protect and strike a balance between the dignity and sanctity of life, as well as the dignity and autonomy of patients. Amongst some of the duties required to be observed by Practitioners include:

  • Proper Diagnosis: Utilising relevant technologies and cooperating with colleagues to ensure the proper diagnosis of patients;
  • Confidentiality: Abstaining from any unauthorised, or otherwise, unnecessary disclosure of patient information; and
  • Informed Consent: Keeping patients, and where applicable, patients’ families sufficiently informed about their diagnosis and prognosis, and attaining informed consent before commencing treatment.

An aspect in which the Law gracefully regulates Practitioners’ duties to protect the sanctity of life and the autonomy of patients, is in relation to the availability of abortion operations. Both the Law and its Amendments recognise scenarios that necessitate abortion operations, and accordingly permit their performance in cases of:

  • Endangerment: This condition requires that the pregnant woman’s life be endangered to the extent that abortion is the only viable option to save her life; and
  • Deformation: Serious foetal deformation affecting the life and health of the foetus after birth is necessary to fulfil this condition.

In cases of Endangerment and Deformation, the Amendments to the Law updated the previous provisions to assert that only the consent of the pregnant woman, and not her husband, is required to commence an abortion operation (amongst other conditions). Where the woman is not able to provide consent, the woman’s husband or, in the absence of the husband, her tutor (i.e. male relatives as defined under the Personal Status Law) are required to consent to the abortion operation. This is a notable change as the Law now imposes a hierarchy for consent, in which the pregnant woman’s consent takes priority, and her husband’s consent is only required where the pregnant women is not able to consent, and if the husband is not able to consent then a male tutor’s consent would be required. It is worth noting that cases of medical emergencies may absolve the need for obtaining any consent. 

Accordingly, the Amendments’ removal of the requirement to obtain the husband’s approval is a longed-for development, as it champions the autonomy of women and increases the availability of abortion operations to women that fulfil the criteria needed by the Law who otherwise would have not been able to access the option of abortion treatment. Similarly, the Amendments also expanded the scope of abortion in cases of Endangerment, by removing the temporal restriction limiting the availability of abortion to one hundred and twenty (120) days since gestation.

In consonance with the Law’s trajectory to uphold patients’ dignity, the Law has granted the Cabinet the power to issue resolutions determining other cases of permitted abortion, which, against the background of the UAE’s commitment to championing the well-being of citizens and residents, is a promising inclusion. These Amendments also exemplify the UAE's commitment to staying up-to-date and being open to foreigners and their diverse cultures.

The Law also protects pregnant women from deliberate illicit abortions, or attempts thereof, by a Practitioner, which may result in the Practitioner facing imprisonment. Other provisions relating to Practitioners’ liability generally are necessarily enunciated in the Law, which encompass instances of negligence, ignorance, lack of due diligence, and gross errors. The Cabinet Resolution No. 40 of 2019 on the Executive Regulations of the Law (the “Regulations”), expanded on the scope of gross errors, which are those that lead to the death of a patient or foetus, or any other serious damage.

Accordingly, pregnant women may find further protection in respect of their rights to abortion, should a Practitioner fail to assess the seriousness of foetal deformation under the Law for example. Therefore, a female patient who was not properly examined for the viability of an abortion, is safeguarded by the ability to submit a complaint to independent supervisory bodies or the Public Prosecution as granted by the Law.

How it is Applicable
As mentioned above, the Law is applicable to Practitioners, defined as those engaged in the practice of a medical profession or one of the professions related thereto as determined by a Minister’s decision, in relation to the performance of the duties of their job. The Law governs the obligations due on Practitioners throughout the course of medical treatment, by regulating the permissions and prohibitions at all stages from examination to diagnosis and treatment. 

Regarding abortion specifically, the Law enunciates the permitted circumstances in which Practitioners and pregnant women may benefit from abortion operations and dictates the requirements which must be fulfilled prior to commencing with abortion. Noting the requirements for consent (save for cases of emergencies), Endangerment and/or Deformation as detailed above, the Law also dictates that Practitioners are to provide medical reports justifying the need for an abortion operation, which must be performed at a health facility authorised to carry out abortion operations. Therefore, the Law will apply to Practitioners in the UAE. 

What it Means for Women
The Law has developed tremendously to safeguard the best interests of women and has bolstered the protection afforded to women’s autonomy, well-being, and dignity. The acknowledgment that the pregnant women’s consent, and not the consent of others, is of utmost priority in relation to abortion operations, is certainly a welcome step that affirms women’s rights to seek abortion in the permitted cases under the Law.

We also note the subtle change enacted by the Amendments to the Law, which permit the Cabinet to expand the scope of cases in which abortion is permitted. A similar provision was not included prior to the Amendments, and we assess this change to be indicative of the possibility of increasing the availability of abortion operations as the UAE continues to develop culturally and socially.

The article, as published, can be read in Khaleej Times: Change in UAE Law on abortion eases

This article was written by litigation lawyers Hadiel Hussein and Nadine Mukhtar and focuses on changes to abortion laws in the UAE

BSA is a regional Law Firm in the Middle East with offices in the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia. As a full-service law firm our practice areas include litigation, arbitration and corporate services, including M&A, banking & finance, Intellectual Property, TMT, Fintech, employment and insurance.

Published on 22 February, 2024.

Related Insights
Got a question or enquiry? Contact us