Thursday December 12, 2019
Home Lead Story Abortion is L...

Abortion is Legal in South Africa but these Laws are Hampered by Widespread Stigma

Hers is a common experience, and it’s what reproductive health advocates say drives 10,000 South African women to seek illegal, backstreet abortions every year

0
//
abortion, south africa
FILE - Nurse Margorie Sithole, left, explains to Martina Mabe, center, and Flora Tshabalala, right, that abortion proceedures will only be performed during the week at Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg, Feb. 1, 1997. VOA

Twenty-six-year-old Precious, as she has asked us to call her to protect her identity, is 16 weeks pregnant. And so is her best friend, also by Precious’ boyfriend. That event turned her life upside down and brought her to the difficult decision to seek an abortion.

She lives in South Africa, where abortion is legal without justification and available through a nurse through 12 weeks of pregnancy, and legal up to 20 weeks, when done by a doctor and with justification.

But when she tried to get an abortion in her home city of Johannesburg, she ran into problems.

“When I went to register my name, I simply said, ‘I want to do abortion,’ and then they said, ‘No,’” she told VOA.

“And there were two nurses there, and the older one said, ‘Oh, thank God, I’m not trained for this,’ whilst the other one said, ‘no, you have to do back to your place and do it there.’ Then we had a disagreement there, as, like, I’m being against God and more stuff like that.”

south africa, abortion
“When I went to register my name, I simply said, ‘I want to do abortion,’ and then they said, ‘No,’” she told VOA. Pixabay

Hers is a common experience, and it’s what reproductive health advocates say drives 10,000 South African women to seek illegal, backstreet abortions every year.

The nation’s health department estimated that as many as 25 percent of maternal deaths from septic miscarriages were the result of such illegal abortions. More than half of all abortions in South Africa are unlicensed, despite the fact that half of all government hospitals offer the service for free.

Precious, who says she fears being judged by her neighbors, chose instead to travel to the dusty mining town of Rustenburg, where aid agency Doctors Without Borders has set up a free abortion clinic.

She said she was sure of her decision.

“I want this thing to be done as quickly as — because I can’t, I can’t take it anymore,” she said, her voice soft and wavering. “Because what I’m thinking is what happened. I can’t think of, like, of positive things. I think, if this thing failed, then what will I do? Should I end my life?”

‘We give women a choice’

Whitney Chinogwenya, head of marketing at South Africa’s best-known private abortion provider, Marie Stopes, says their clinics address a real need. The company recently launched a campaign to try to reduce the stigma around abortion care.

south africa, abortion
Hers is a common experience, and it’s what reproductive health advocates say drives 10,000 South African women to seek illegal, backstreet abortions every year. Pixabay

“When a woman wants to terminate a pregnancy, they’re going to terminate the pregnancy,” Chinogwenya told VOA from the organization’s office in downtown Johannesburg. “It doesn’t matter what methods they use, it doesn’t matter whether it’s legal, it’s illegal or it’s safe — they’re going to find a way to terminate the pregnancy.

“So what’s so great about South Africa and it being legal here is that there’s a safe place where you can get the procedure, where it’s not going to harm your body, where it’s not going to cause serious complications. And the most important thing is that we give women a choice.”

Another problem, she said, is that few women know that abortion is legal, and think backstreet providers — who advertise openly, but who are not licensed — are their only option.

Medical experts told VOA harrowing tales of the practices performed by such providers. Many don’t perform ultrasounds, don’t attempt to determine how far along the pregnancy is, don’t follow up after the procedure, give the wrong medication, give incorrect medical advice, or administer dangerous chemicals such as bleach and drain cleaner to desperate patients.

One particularly egregious provider, Chinogwenya told VOA, even tried to sexually assault a woman in his care.

‘Somebody has to do it’

Nurse Kgaladi Mphahlele, who heads the Doctors Without Borders project in Rustenburg, says demand for the clinic’s services is high. He estimates he performs as many as 100 first-trimester abortions each month, and says he sees women from as far away as Botswana, where abortion is illegal.

south africa, abortion
She lives in South Africa, where abortion is legal without justification. Pixabay

His patients, he said, range in age from teenagers to 50-year-olds. He began his career delivering babies, but switched course, and says he’s proud of his decision.

“I look back, ‘why did I get myself into this profession?’” he said, adding that his friends and family were initially worried, but have since become supportive of his choice.

“I said, ‘I want to be a health care provider because I want to help the people.’ And then, you see a gap, and this is part of health care service, and if no one is doing it, somebody has to do it. And I enjoy doing it, and I enjoy working with people.”

At the clinic in Rustenburg, nurse Christa Tsomele has been performing abortions for a decade, and says she is proud of her work. She says she thinks some of her colleagues are contributing to the stigma of abortion — and worse.

ALSO READ: Health Experts Claim, Tuberculosis Can Reduce Chances Of Pregnancy

“If you can’t help a patient as a nurse, just refer the client to the relevant place so that the patient must get help,” she said. “Don’t just tell her, ‘no, I can’t do that, or ‘I can’t help you,’ and leave the patient stranded. That is why they end up going to the bogus [provider]. Because when you leave her stranded, now she decides to go out to the street, that is where she is going to die.”

It’s that, she says, that keeps her going, through the judgment, through the tears, through the difficult stories she hears day in and day out. Because, she says, whether people agree with her work or not, she’s saving women’s lives, and following the law. (VOA)

Next Story

Women Seek Abortion Out Of State Due to Restrictions

Women in 'The States' are being strictly held when it comes to abortion

0
Women, Abortion, Restriction, USA
Abortion rights activists protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, during the March for Life in Washington, Jan. 18, 2019. VOA

Women in ‘The States’ are being strictly held when it comes to abortion. But, now they are finding relief out of the state. At a routine ultrasound when she was five months pregnant, Hevan Lunsford began to panic when the technician took longer than normal, then told her she would need to see a specialist.

Lunsford, a nurse in Alabama, knew it was serious and begged for an appointment the next day.

That’s when the doctor gave her and her husband the heart-wrenching news: The baby boy they decided to name Sebastian was severely underdeveloped and had only half a heart. If he survived, he would need care to ease his pain and several surgeries. He may not live long.

Lunsford, devastated, asked the doctor about ending the pregnancy.

“I felt the only way to guarantee that he would not have any suffering was to go through with the abortion,” she said of that painful decision nearly three years ago.

Women, Abortion, Restriction, USA
Bianca Cameron-Schwiesow, from left, Kari Crowe and Margeaux Hartline, dressed as handmaids, take part in a protest against HB314, the abortion ban bill, at the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Ala., April 17, 2019. VOA

But the doctor said Alabama law prohibits abortions after five months. He handed Lunsford a piece of paper with information for a clinic in Atlanta, a roughly 180-mile (290-kilometer) drive east.

Lunsford is one of thousands of women in the U.S. who have crossed state lines for an abortion in recent years as states have passed ever stricter laws and as the number of clinics has declined.

Although abortion opponents say the laws are intended to reduce abortions and not send people to other states, at least 276,000 women terminated their pregnancies outside their home states between 2012 and 2017, according to an Associated Press analysis of data collected from state reports and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In New Mexico, the number of women from out of state who had abortions more than doubled in that period, while Missouri women represented nearly half the abortions performed in neighboring Kansas.

“The procedure itself was probably the least traumatic part of it,” Lunsford said. “If it would have been at my hospital, there would have been a feeling like what I was doing was OK and a reasonable choice.”

While abortions across the U.S. are down, the share of women who had abortions out of state rose slightly, by half a percentage point, and certain states had notable increases over the five-year period, according to AP’s analysis.

Women, Abortion, Restriction, USA
Abortion rights supporters protest at the Louisiana Capitol, where lawmakers were considering a bill that would ban abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy, May 21, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. The bill won final passage May 29. VOA

In pockets of the Midwest, South and Mountain West, the number of women terminating a pregnancy in another state rose considerably, particularly where a lack of clinics means the closest provider is in another state or where less restrictive policies in a neighboring state make it easier and quicker to terminate a pregnancy there.

“In many places, the right to abortion exists on paper, but the ability to access it is almost impossible,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Women’s Health, which operates seven abortion clinics in Maryland, Indiana, Texas, Virginia and Minnesota. “We see people’s access to care depend on their ZIP code.”

The numbers 

Nationwide, women who traveled from other states received at least 44,860 abortions in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the AP analysis of data from 41 states.

That’s about 10% of all reported procedures that year, but counts from nine states, including highly populated California and Florida, and the District Columbia were not included, either because they were not collected or reported across the full five years.

Thirteen states saw a rise in the number of out-of-state women having abortions between 2012 and 2017.

New Mexico’s share of abortions performed on women from out of state more than doubled, from 11% to roughly 25%. One likely reason is that a clinic in Albuquerque is one of only a few independent facilities in the country that perform abortions close to the third trimester without conditions.

Georgia’s share of abortions performed on out-of-state women rose from 11.5% to 15%. While Georgia has passed restrictive laws, experts and advocates still view it as more accessible than some neighboring states.

In Illinois, the percentage of abortions performed on non-residents more than doubled to 16.5% of all reported state abortions in 2017. That is being driven in large part by women from Missouri, one of six states with only a single abortion provider.

Even that provider, in St. Louis, has been under threat of closing after the state health department refused to renew its license.

Women, Abortion, Restriction, USA
Abortion rights and anti-abortion rights protesters stand outside Planned Parenthood as a deadline looms to renew the license of Missouri’s sole remaining Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, May 31, 2019. VOA

Missouri lawmakers also passed a law this year that would ban almost all abortions past eight weeks of a pregnancy, but it faces a legal challenge.

About 10 miles (16 kilometers) from St. Louis, across the Mississippi River, is the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which has seen a 30% increase in patients this year and has added two doctors, deputy director Alison Dreith said.

About 55 percent of its patients come from Missouri, and it also sees women from Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. All those states have mandatory waiting periods to receive an abortion, a requirement Illinois does not have.

Dreith called it a scary time for women in states with highly restrictive laws and few clinics.

“The landscape that we’re seeing today did not happen overnight, and it was not by accident,” she said.

And Illinois isn’t the only place Missouri women are heading for abortions.

In 2017, Missouri women received 47% of all abortions performed in Kansas. That is in large part because the only access to the procedure throughout western Missouri, particularly the greater Kansas City area, is across the state line in Overland Park, Kansas.

Women, Abortion, Restriction, USA
In pockets of the Midwest, South and Mountain West, the number of women terminating a pregnancy in another state rose considerably, particularly where a lack of clinics means the closest provider is in another state or where less restrictive policies in a neighboring state make it easier and quicker to terminate a pregnancy there. VOA

Legislative action 

Between 2011 and May 31 of this year, 33 states passed 480 laws restricting abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights.

In 2019 alone, lawmakers approved 58 restrictions, primarily in the Midwest, Plains and South — almost half of which would ban all, most or some abortions, the group said.

The most high-profile laws, which face legal challenges that could eventually test the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, would ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — as early as six weeks.

Advocates say that if the Supreme Court upholds the latest restrictions, it will become more common for women to seek abortions in other states.

“The intent of these lawmakers is to completely outlaw abortion and force people not to have abortions. But in reality, it pushes people farther and wider to access the care they want and need,” said Quita Tinsley, deputy director of Access Reproductive Care Southeast.

ARC Southeast is part of the National Network of Abortion Funds, a collective of 70 abortion support groups for women in six Southeast states. Some provide money to women to pay for abortions, while others also help with transportation, lodging and child care.

A third of women calling the group’s hotline for help end up traveling out of state for abortions, Tinsley said. Many choose Georgia because it’s convenient to get to and considered slightly less restrictive than some other states in the South.

In Georgia, which has a mandatory waiting period, a woman is not required to come to a clinic twice, as they are in Tennessee. But if Georgia’s new fetal heartbeat law survives a court challenge, it would have one of the earliest state-imposed abortion bans.

That would force many women to go even farther from where they live to terminate their pregnancies.

Increase in New Mexico 

Of all states, New Mexico has seen the biggest increase in the number of women coming from elsewhere for an abortion — a 158% jump between 2012 and 2017, according to AP’s analysis.

The New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice helps an average of 100 women a year but is on track to assist 200 this year. Some of its 55 volunteers open their homes to women coming from out of state.

Executive director Joan Lamunyon Sanford said her group is doing what faith communities have always done: “Care for the stranger and welcome the traveler.”

Lamunyon Sanford said the need is growing as barriers increase and women are unable to access care where they live.

“They have to figure out so many details and figuring out how they are going to get the funding for everything,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just too much. And then they become parents.”

The coalition helped Beth Vial, who didn’t learn she was pregnant until she was six months along after chronic medical conditions masked her symptoms.

As a 22-year-old college student living in Portland, Oregon, Vial was beyond the point when nearly every abortion clinic in the country would perform the procedure.

Vial’s only option for an abortion was New Mexico, where a volunteer with the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice drove her to and from the clinic in Albuquerque and brought her meals.

The support she received inspired her to join the board of Northwest Access Abortion Fund, which helps women in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska.

“To have people I didn’t even know support me in ways that I didn’t even really know I needed at the time was unlike anything I have ever experienced,” said Vial, now 24. “It has encouraged me to give back to my community so other people don’t have to experience that alone.”