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Abortion: life-saving or murder?

Not a year goes by without horrific stories about newborns found in garbage dumps or abandoned in a pit latrine circulating in the media. An estimated 21.6 million women worldwide, 18.5 million of which are in developing countries, subject themselves to unsafe abortions each year.

The societal pressures that force millions of women to do so are many, ranging from poverty to religion. Whether abortion is good or bad is beside the point and quite frankly a matter of opinion. We need to address the reality that the general public’s judgmental attitudes, in addition to outdated legislation, are primary contributors to such astonishing maternal mortality rates.

Abortions are (not) wrong

Many years ago I studied in South Africa for a short while and during that time I and many of my peers were living independently for the first time. I observed and learned many things. Going to the clinic for an abortion, for instance, was not uncommon. People would ‘make mistakes’ and girls would be persuaded to terminate their pregnancies. One of two things always occurred: either the boy convinces the girl that neither of them is ready to become a parent or he would deny paternity altogether. Some would go as far as disappearing on the girl. Through my own judgmental gaze at the time, I often thought some of the girls were reckless for putting themselves in compromising situations repeatedly. But that was beside the point. Women should be entitled to make their own choices.

There’s overwhelming proof that waiting for marriage before engaging in sex is one of the most ineffective birth-control methods in this day and age. Still, authority figures would rather keep the myth alive than embrace the idea of open-minded sexual education and encourage well-researched contraception. Imagine a scenario where a pair of university students who come from humble backgrounds fall pregnant. Their lives and those of their families back home are pinned on the success of their education. The two then decide to have an abortion. The girl is terrified of being chastised by nurses at the public hospital let alone being recorded on the system, so that option is out. She and her boyfriend weigh their options: proper abortion facilities are too expensive but that sign they saw at the traffic light read “safe abortions” so perhaps they could give it a try. The fear of humiliating their families far outweighs the fear of things going wrong and so they call the number on the street sign.

Unsafe abortion global and regional estimates of incidence of unsafe abortion and associated mortality in 2008. Photo: WHO
Unsafe abortion global and regional estimates of incidence of unsafe abortion and associated mortality in 2008. Photo: WHO

What the two do not consider is that 47 000 women die from complications during backdoor abortion each year. Of the women who do survive unsafe abortions, five million will suffer long-term health complications, including not carrying pregnancies to term in the future. Shady nurses rely on painful, dangerous and deadly methods to terminate pregnancies when abortion is not legal or accessible. A sampling of these methods includes bathing in scalding water, consuming turpentine or ergot, a fungus, which is especially effective at ending pregnancies while at the same time bringing on gangrene, psychosis and death and the most popular; probing the vagina with a knitting needle or the infamous hanger. The side effects of these risky applications include infection, sterility, permanent injury, puncture, hemorrhage, and death.

Abortion is a pressing issue

What happens when a woman conceives a child but the pregnancy poses a threat to her health or it is found out that her foetus is deformed? What if she is so poor that she does not want to subject her unborn child to the hardships of this earth? What if she was impregnated by an abusive partner who wanted to maintain control over every aspect of her life? What if she was raped and suffers from severe post-traumatic stress? It is easy for people to stand on podiums and preach that all children are a gift from God because they have the financial and communal support to deal and cope. Not everyone has that luxury or resilience though, which is why we need a different approach.

Photo by Ruth Atkinson Street Advert. (Telephone number has been blurred out.)
Photo by Ruth Atkinson Street Advert. (Telephone number has been blurred out.)

Pregnancy termination is completely restricted by law in 14 African countries, particularly in predominantly Islamic as well as the more economically weak nations. In countries where abortion is legal the personal politics of many healthcare workers override their legal and professional obligations to provide high quality reproductive healthcare. As a result illegal/unsafe abortions continue to take place and contribute to high rates of maternal morbidity and mortality. So then the question lies: what deserves priority; human lives or beliefs and political power? Over and above respecting the rights of women as human beings, to do with their bodies as they see fit, we need a more evolved, supportive and empathetic society.

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