Rewriting abortion: Deploying medical records in jurisdictional negotiation over a forbidden practice in Senegal

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Boundary work refers to the strategies deployed by professionals in the arenas of the public, the law and the workplace to define and defend jurisdictional authority. Little attention has been directed to the role of documents in negotiating professional claims. While boundary work over induced abortion has been extensively documented, few studies have examined jurisdictional disputes over the treatment of abortion complications, or post-abortion care (PAC). This study explores how medical providers deploy medical records in boundary work over the treatment of complications of spontaneous and induced abortion in Senegal, where induced abortion is prohibited under any circumstance. Findings are based on an institutional ethnography of Senegal's national PAC program over a period of 13 months between 2010 and 2011. Data collection methods included in-depth interviews with 36 health care professionals, observation of PAC services at three hospitals, a review of abortion records at each hospital, and a case review of illegal abortions prosecuted by the state. Findings show that health providers produce a particular account of the type of abortion treated through a series of practices such as the patient interview and the clinical exam. Providers obscure induced abortion in medical documents in three ways: the use of terminology that does not differentiate between induced and spontaneous abortion in PAC registers, the omission of data on the type of abortion altogether in PAC registers, and reporting the total number but not the type of abortions treated in hospital data transmitted to state health authorities. The obscuration of suspected induced abortion in the record permits providers to circumvent police inquiry at the hospital. PAC has been implemented in approximately 50 countries worldwide. This study demonstrates the need for additional research on how medical professionals negotiate conflicting medical and legal obligations in the daily practice of treating abortion complications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)20-33
Number of pages14
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - May 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by graduate fellowships from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) , the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) , the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) , and the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University . My fieldwork in Senegal was greatly facilitated by the West African Research Center (WARC). I am extremely grateful to everyone who participated in and contributed to the study.


  • Abortion
  • Boundary work
  • Ethnography
  • Medicine
  • Professions
  • Records
  • Senegal
  • Sociology

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