Facing up to abortion

Guest Column Stephen Buckland

WHEN talking and thinking about abortion, it is probably not helpful to begin by asking: is it morally acceptable?

There is, of course, a place for that. But labels such as ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ can blind us to the actual situations of the many women – often young, sometimes very young — who are so intimately involved. Moral reflection must start from facts.

For instance, how common is abortion, actually, in Zimbabwe? Few of us speak openly about such things, so accurate numbers are not easy to come by.

Fortunately, two major studies of abortion and post-abortion care in Zimbabwe came out last year from the Guttmacher Institute of New York, with Zimbabwean
researchers from the University of Zimbabwe College of Health Sciences and the Ministry of Health and Child Care.

We now know that, in 2016, one out of ten pregnancies in Zimbabwe ended in induced abortions. There were 66,800 such abortions that year, which is 18 per 1000
women between the ages of 15 and 49. Other countries in the region have higher rates than this, some much higher, but no one will get pleasure from these
figures.

Abortion in Zimbabwe is governed by the Termination of Pregnancy Act dating from 1978. It allows abortion, but only to save the life or physical health of the
woman, or if the child to be born will suffer serious mental or physical damage, or in the case of rape or incest.

With the state of our health care system, combined with bureaucratic inertia, even these legally permitted abortions can be difficult to obtain, and there are
growing calls to revise the law. Most abortions in Zimbabwe are unregulated and illegal.

Many are not performed by trained health professionals. A significant proportion end in medical complications. Some, certainly, end in the death of the woman
(and all abortions involve at least one death). We must face this: abortion is a feature of Zimbabwean society, of our society.

Its roots — social, economic, political — go deep between and among and within us. It’s a part of the fabric of our national life.

But it is women in particular, especially young and impoverished women, who are affected most.

No one gets pregnant on their own, but only the woman carries the child; and she does so on her own. Plenty of others, especially men, can feel that they are
better off as a result of an abortion, but only a woman can undergo one.

The Guttmacher studies reckoned that about half the 25,500 women treated for complications in 2016 had undergone unsafe induced abortions: that would be about
19% of all abortions that year, nearly one in five.

Our maternal mortality ratio — the number of women dying in childbirth in Zimbabwe — is one of the highest in the world: 651 for every 100,000 live births, according to the National Statistics Agency Demographic and Health Survey for 2015.

The WHO’s World Health Statistics 2018 gives a much lower, but still very high, figure of 443 (three times that of South Africa). These are shameful figures in
a country like ours. Of course, by no means all maternal deaths are caused by induced abortions, but some certainly are.

Women everywhere bear the larger share of the physical risk of reproducing our societies. But in Zimbabwe, it is especially girls and young women who shoulder
disproportionality more of that risk.

According to World Health Organisation figures published last year, the number of births per 1 000 teenaged women (that is, 15:19) in Zimbabwe, was 110 —

higher than the rate for Africa as a whole (99).
Our own National Statistics Demographic Survey for 2015 puts the percentage of teenagers who are pregnant or have given birth at 22% overall, and as high as
27% in rural areas. That is more than one in four.

Girls in Zimbabwe have to learn very quickly that their bodies, merely by being female, make them vulnerable, even within their own immediate families, in a
way boys are not. Girls must negotiate their lives and cope in a patriarchal social structure dominated by a toxic male sexuality that is all too often
actually predatory.

The desperate situation in our poorest communities places huge social, economic and psychological pressures on all. But pressure falls especially on girls and young women in disintegrating or disordered families.

All of this is part of what we call ‘abortion in Zimbabwe’. It is not just that poverty and desperation make so many see abortion as a solution. This is not
about justifying the decisions to abort. It is rather a recognition that the injustice with which our society treats so many girls and women is part of
abortion, and part of what makes it morally wrong.

Those of us who see abortion as depriving a human being in the womb of her or his life must also see that in many cases, it is not just the decision of a
single (often young and impoverished) woman that brings it about or makes it morally wrong.

It is also the kind of society that we in Zimbabwe and elsewhere have created and sustain: A society that places huge burdens on its poorest and weakest
members, so many of whom are young women; a society that makes abortion seem almost normal. Abortion is wrong because it is a crucial part of the injustice, to
born and unborn alike.

To be opposed to abortion, to argue and campaign against it, is — or should be — to argue and campaign also against the kind of society that places young women
in such situations and then, largely, sacrifices them and their unborn children to their fate.

It is to argue and campaign not just against one particular law but positively for a different kind of society — one which treats women, and especially young
women, but also men and boys, with the respect that is due to all human beings.

Key to this is our attitudes to sexuality, especially male sexuality. Around this project, many of us from all “sides” of the abortion debate could unite and
cooperate.

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