Guest Column: Mishma Chakanyuka
Abortion in Zimbabwe is illegal as provided for under the Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1977 [Chapter 15:10].
The Termination of Pregnancy Act restricts abortion and permits it only in cases of rape (incest), when the mother’s life is at risk, or when the child may be born with serious mental or physical disabilities. Breaking the Act attracts imprisonment of up to five years.
In most cases, the Pregnancy Act is justified by the argument that abortion should not be used as a birth controlling measure, as people should use the available measures and not resort to abortion.
Zimbabwe’s Pregnancy Act should be revised as it has forced many women to resort to risky backyard abortions. Abortion cases are most common with teenagers, sex workers and rape victims.
Although the Act defines certain circumstances in which abortion is legal, in some cases, the legal procedures that one has to undergo take a long period to be completed such that sometimes the pregnancy reaches a stage at which it can no longer be terminated.
There is lack of urgency around the processes of getting authorisation for an abortion. Time is an essential aspect during pregnancy.
The medically-approved timeframe for effective abortions is 20 to 24 weeks. After this period, the foetus is regarded to be too well-developed for termination and the process becomes riskier.
For example, a rape victim gets pregnant and wants to abort. For the process to be carried out, the person who has raped the victim should be arrested; the victim has to provide solid evidence to prove she has been raped; the matter has to go to the courts and a police report should be provided first before the doctor proceeds with the abortion process.
Sometimes, the perpetrators are not caught on time for the victim to go through the legal procedures and terminate the pregnancy on time.
Abortion in Zimbabwe can only be done at government hospitals and they have to be authorised by a medical supervisor and, in most cases, the authorisation process takes a long time.
As a result, abortion in hospitals is done at a later stage when the foetus has reached advanced stages of development, hence posing a risk to the mother’s health.
The Pregnancy Act does not cater for sex workers and teenagers or married women who get pregnant, but are not in a position to keep the pregnancy and take care of the child after being born.
Sex workers and teenagers constitute a bigger percentage of abortion rates in Zimbabwe, so it will be wiser if the law considers them.
Teenagers and sex workers have a higher risk of getting unwanted pregnancies, hence they have a higher rate of aborting.
Most sex workers and teenage girls resort to unsafe backyard abortions because they cannot go to State hospitals, where they can acquire safe termination of the pregnancy, as they do not have enough reasons to legally justify why they want to abort and enough money to pay for the procedure.
Some of the unorthodox abortion methods that teenagers and sex workers use include using hooked wires or wire hangers to break the uterus lining, drinking washing powder, taking an overdose of pills and shoving fresh chillies up their private parts.
These methods pose threats to their health as some of them may cause barrenness in future and some lead to death. Most women die or become barren due to carrying out risky backyard abortions.
In abortion cases concerning sex workers and teenagers, people often ignore their feelings and the reasons behind them resorting to abortion.
People tend to judge teenagers and sex workers who turn to abortion without digging deeper as to why they have made such decisions. Rather, they accuse them of being inhuman even though in some instances, those who abort really have solid reasons that just need to be heard.
For instance, when a teenager, who is definitely still in school, gets impregnated by a teenage boy who is more likely to be the same age with her, wants to abort, the law should let her do so.
Some of the reasons that will lead her to consider abortion include that she and her boyfriend are not financially stable to take care of the baby once it has been born and since the mother will still be in school, having a baby on the way will be an obstacle to her education, as most government and private high schools do not allow pregnant girls to continue coming to school in that condition.
Due to the aforementioned reasons, the only alternative for the teenage girl is abortion so that she does not ruin her future by dropping out of school.
Sex workers’ cases are slightly different since mostly they sleep with many men on a single day as party of their job. A sex worker may choose to abort because, in most cases, she does not know who made her pregnant.
For some of them, being pregnant will stand as a hindrance to their job, which mostly is largely their main source of income. Since the law does not allow them to abort, they end up turning to unsafe backyard abortions.
However, the law is not the only thing that needs to be revised so as to put an end to risky backyard abortions. Some of the issues that need to be revised include the prices charged at hospitals for abortions.
The prices being charged at hospitals are too high such that an ordinary person cannot afford. This has also proven to be one of the major challenges that are pushing women to resort to backyard abortions.
The issue of legalising abortion remains critical as it is viewed in different ways by different people who have different cultures and social and religious beliefs.
The legalisation of abortion will reduce the number of women who die daily and some who become barren due to unsafe backyard abortions.
Mishma Chakanyuka is a University of Zimbabwe student. She writes in her personal capacity.