The problem with abortion

guest column Miriam Tose Majome

THE NewsDay recently reported that three parliamentary thematic committees visited Chiredzi to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges of child prostitution and sexual reproductive rights.

Chiredzi town gained notoriety for prostitution, dating back to the 1960s, such that there are even streets named in posthumous honour of some of the town’s most revered ladies of the night who plied their trade there at various times.

Parliament must be applauded for seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the issues, hopefully to introduce some necessary law reforms. The MPs came face-to-face with the prevalence of abortion in Chiredzi, as much as it is everywhere else in the country.

However, there is a general reluctance to talk openly about sexual-related issues and more, especially to accept the reality of the prevalence and permanence of backyard abortions. So year-after-year, the discussion is swept under the carpet, because people are just not comfortable or equipped to deal with it without emotion.

Abortion sharply divides opinion, because people are steeply entrenched in their positions.

This is due to their various ideologies, religious beliefs, cultural values and personal moralities.

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However, backyard abortions will not end simply because the law decrees them illegal.

The issue is not about personal preferences or whether or not abortion is wrong or right.

The issue must be tackled objectively and the existing laws amended to match the reality on the ground.

The chief interest should be serving and protecting the rights and interests of women and girls.

Abortion is illegal in Zimbabwe, unless it complies with specific legally provided exemptions.

The Termination of Pregnancy Act defines the circumstances in which pregnancies can be terminated.

Contravening the Act is a criminal offence, and attracts imprisonment of up to five years.

Section 4 of the Act lays out only three circumstances in which pregnancies can be legally terminated.

First, if the pregnancy poses some danger to the woman’s life, such that continuing with it would be fatal or seriously impair her physical health. Second, if there is a serious risk that the child to be born will have a serious permanent physical or mental defect.

Third, if the foetus was conceived as a result of unlawful intercourse, that is, either rape or incest.

Despite these exceptions, getting authorisation for an abortion is an expensive, arduous and time consuming process.

There is a lack of urgency built into the processes, despite the fact that time is of the essence during a pregnancy.

There are different opinions, but the generally medically approved timeframe for effecting safe abortions is 20-24 weeks. After 24 weeks, the foetus is too well-developed and it is maybe riskier to proceed with it.

In Zimbabwe, abortion can only be done at State hospitals and authorised by the medical superintendent.

Even where it is legally permitted, the bureaucracy and red tape a pregnant woman must disentangle to get the authorisation takes much longer than the medically agreed time.

Consequently and unfortunately, fully developed foetuses in advanced stages of development are often aborted.

In circumstances which relate to medical grounds regarding potential danger and risk to the mother and foetus, the abortion can only be authorised after at least two different and independent medical practitioners have certified the risks and complications.

In the case of the alleged risk to the foetus, there have to be investigations and scientific research conducted to the satisfaction of the superintendent before they can grant the authority to abort.

In the case of rape or incest, lengthy and invasive investigative legal procedures, which involve the police and courts, must be undertaken.

A magistrate must carry out all the necessary investigative procedures in order to be personally satisfied that, indeed, the alleged rape or incest took place.

All this is done while precious time ticks away and the pregnancy growing, and the foetus developing quickly into a fully formed human being, eager and getting ready to be born.

Very few women, who genuinely need abortions, have the time and financial resources to go through with the lengthy and expensive legal and medical processes.

It is expensive for the average woman to go from doctor to doctor to get independent assessments when their pregnancy has been flagged for further investigations.

For victims of rape and incest, the invasive investigative and legal processes are daunting and many women would rather avoid them. By the time the court order comes, it may be too late and if they haven’t aborted the pregnancy using their own means, they would be forced to bear a child they never wanted or can love.

While all this is going on, women in Chiredzi and everywhere else are getting on with whatever they need to do when they find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy.

A Chiredzi sex worker summed the reality on the ground well when she said: “Although we don’t know the number of pregnancies terminated and the number of those who die in the process, we admit that we use unorthodox abortion methods like shoving fresh chillies up our private parts or using hooked wires, but nurses from Chiredzi General Hospital and doctors from private institutions have carried out most of the abortions in this town,”

The last part reveals an even more telling narrative and invisible hand in this. Since time immemorial, nurses and doctors have been rumoured to run underworld abortion rackets.

They get good pocket money from women and, in particular, female students desperate to just get rid of it with no questions asked. Here we love to pretend that things which happen are not happening.

A cursory internet search on abortion services in Zimbabwe shows organisations and individuals openly advertising abortion services and pills. One very well-known organisation with a strong interest in population control services lists branches throughout the country where abortion and sexual reproduction services can be obtained

We will continue exploring this wide-ranging topic from various perspectives, not to debate whether abortion is right or wrong, but to discuss the challenges and the law in line with the reality on the ground.

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