As the sexual and reproductive health rights of women and girls took centre stage last week, so did the country’s abortion laws.
The Guttmacher-Lancet Commission on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights report said about 44% of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended and 56% of those end in an induced abortion.
The report also showed that 25 million unsafe abortions are performed worldwide each year.
Although South Africa’s Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996 was lauded as pioneering, it has seen some controversial opposition.
Parliament’s health portfolio committee last week rejected African Christian Democratic Party MP Cheryllyn Dudley’s private member’s bill on abortion, saying her proposals would make it harder for women to safely end unwanted pregnancies.
“There is a lack of conclusive evidence that the proposed amendments contained in the bill will enhance the provision of care; the costs of providing the services proposed in the bill are prohibitive; and the proposed amendments in the bill will present further barriers in accessing termination of pregnancy services,” the committee said.
Dudley said: “It’s been a good experience and has helped put the conversation out there.
“The fact is, there hasn’t been an open conversation about this bill since it came into law. It’s been a very serious attempt to address this problem that people think terminations are their only solution,” she said.
“The reason women have three or five repeat abortions is that they aren’t given the right information. One mum told us of her traumatic ordeal when the baby came out; she started screaming to the doctor to try to save it. It’s a traumatic time for women and they deserve to have more information at their disposal.”
Dudley asserted that through her proposed changes to the bill – which included showing women ultrasound images of their foetuses, and mandatory counselling before and after the abortions – was not an attempt to block the way for women who had made up their minds, but would help those who were undecided.
“We weren’t undermining women. It was about making sure we offer a safety net for women who needed more information during that traumatic time,” she said.
The health department’s deputy director-general for HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and maternal, child and women’s health Yogan Pillay said: “There was no scientific evidence for anything Dudley was asking for.
“In fact, if it came to pass, we would be harming the patient further and the outcomes of the proposed changes would be an increase in illegal abortion,” he said.
“We can’t think of abortion in a silo, we have to think of it in the context of sexual and reproductive health rights. In some instances, women are sexually abused or their contraceptives fail.”
Pillay conceded that problems providing abortion services persisted in government facilities, largely because of the stigma and morality still attached to them.
“We have 500 facilities that should technically provide these services but, in actual fact, only a few do because some health workers say their consciences won’t allow it.
“So we are trying to increase the number of facilities offering surgical terminations and encouraging women to take a pill,” Pillay said.
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