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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

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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.

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“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

Over 95% Women Feel That Abortion Was The Right Decision: Study

Over 95% women do not regret having an abortion says a new study

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According to a new study, over 95% women do not regret the decision of having an abortion. Pixabay

Researchers have found that even five years down the line after having an abortion, over 95 per cent of the women said it was the right decision for them.

Published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, the study found no evidence that women began to regret their decisions as years passed.

On the contrary, the women reported that both their positive and negative feelings about the abortion diminished over time. At five years, the overwhelming majority (84 per cent) had either positive feelings, or none at all.

“Even if they had difficulty making the decision initially, or if they felt their community would not approve, our research shows that the overwhelming majority of women who obtain abortions continue to believe it was the right decision,” said study researcher Corinne Rocca, Associate Professor at University of California in the US.

“This debunks the idea that most women suffer emotionally from having an abortion,” Rocca added.

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Most women suffer emotionally from having an abortion. Pixabay

For the findings, the researchers analysed data from the Turnaway Study, a five-year effort to understand the health and socioeconomic consequences for nearly 1,000 women who sought abortions in 21 states around the country.

The analysis included 667 participants who had abortions at the start of the study. The women were surveyed a week after they sought care and every six months thereafter, for a total of 11 times.

While women did not report regretting their decision, many did struggle initially to make it. Just over half said the decision to terminate their pregnancy was very difficult (27 per cent) or somewhat difficult (27 pe rcent), while the rest (46 percent) said it was not difficult.

About 70 per cent also reported feeling they would be stigmatised by their communities if people knew they had sought an abortion, with 29 per cent reporting low levels and 31 percent reporting high levels of community stigma. Those who struggled with their decisions or felt stigmatized were more likely to experience sadness, guilt and anger shortly after obtaining the abortion.

Over time, however, the number of women reporting these negative emotions declined dramatically, particularly in the first year after their abortion. This was also true for those who initially struggled with their decision.

And relief was the most prominent emotion reported by all groups at the end of the study — just as it was at every time point in the study.

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“This research goes further than previous studies, in that it follows women for longer, and was conducted on a larger sample from many different clinics throughout the US,” said Julia Steinberg from University of Maryland.

“It shows that women remain certain in their decision to get an abortion over time. These results clearly disprove claims that regret is likely after abortion,” Steinberg said. (IANS)