Recent reports that illegal abortions are on the rise in Zimbabwe have once again sparked debate on whether the country should go the South African way and legalise the procedure or nip it in the bud by increasing access to contraception.
By Phyllis Mbanje
Zimbabwe, like most African countries, is highly conservative when it comes to elective termination of pregnancy unless it is for health reasons.
In South Africa the same arguments, which were dubbed “moral crusades” almost derailed spirited advocacy campaigns to legalise termination.
Former Mozambican president Armando Guebuza in December 2014 quietly signed into law a revised penal code bill that eased prohibitions in abortion regulations, a move hailed by health groups in that country.
Unsafe abortion in Mozambique accounted for 11% of maternal deaths, according to health watchdogs. But evidence has shown that the country is still battling with the societal ill.
A delicate balancing act is now required in the Zimbabwe situation. Evidence and statistics overwhelmingly suggest that illegal abortions, that are often conducted under unhygienic conditions, contribute to the maternal mortality, which is still very high, at 525 deaths per every 100 000 live births.
For years, the debate has raged, with religious groups fronting biblical arguments that abortion is murder and anyone who commits this “crime” is just as good as a murderer, who kills another human being.
“Why do we even debate on this issue when it’s obvious that it is wrong and perpetuates moral decadence in our society,” Washington Garwe, a preacher at the Anointed Gospel Assemblies based in Harare’s Rugare suburb, said.
He argued that if boys and girls abstained from sex before marriage and married couples stayed faithful, abortion would never be a subject of contention.
“Parents have the obligation to teach their children to remain pure until they are married. Zimbabwe is not South Africa, where morals have gone to the gutters along with humanity,” Garwe fumed.
However, a traditional healer, only known as MaKhumalo from Westlea suburb in Harare, said a woman should be granted the right to choose.
“I have assisted many women, some of them wives of big people. I do not see the problem here. We, traditional healers are constantly harassed but we know there are (conventional) clinics that do the same,” she said
Abortion in this country is only legal under section 4 of the Termination of Pregnancy Act. The act states that termination of a foetus is legal only when the life of the mother and her physical health is threatened or where there is a risk that the child to be born will suffer from physical or mental defects of such a nature that it will be permanently or seriously handicapped.
Illegal abortions are tried under the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act, which states that: “Any person who intentionally terminates a pregnancy or terminates a pregnancy by conduct, which he or she realises involves a real risk or possibility of terminating the pregnancy shall be guilty of unlawful termination of pregnancy and liable to a fine not exceeding level 10 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years or both.”
This is despite the fact that leading health body the World Health Organisation estimates that one in every five pregnancies worldwide ends in induced abortion and that around 47 000 women die due to complications linked to unsafe abortion.
However, the emotive debate has come at a time when calls are being made to promote family planning and make contraception more accessible.
Zimbabwe’s primary health care system, under which family planning is a critical component, is applauded for being one of the best structured health care systems in sub-Saharan Africa.
The primary health care system integrates services where people receive advice on family planning, vaccinations for their children and treatment when they get sick.
Currently, family planning averts approximately 310 000 unintended pregnancies in Zimbabwe annually. By investing in family planning now, the country increases this number to almost 500 000 per year by 2020.
In a recent statement on dispelling misconceptions on contraception, the executive director of the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council of Zimbabwe, Munyaradzi Murwira said family planning saved women’s lives.
“In fact, family planning saves the lives of women and children. Each pregnancy that a woman experiences poses risks to her health and the health of the child she carries,” he explained.