The recent incident in Ireland where an Indian woman lost her life because of being refused an abortion has sparked a world-wide debate on the issue. Everybody from women right activists to the socio-economic leaders, want that nation to come clear on its stand regarding the issue of abortion. We all talk of women issues and the need to tackle them. I personally feel that this issue deserves equal importance considering that it is the question of somebody’s life.
Abortion laws across the globe have witnessed a sea-change with respect to the restrictions and barriers associated with the process. Much emphasis has been laid on the need to liberalize the laws so that women can have easy access to safe procedures for the termination of pregnancies. Of course there are ethical issues and other complexities involved, but in countries where the law is not open, many women lose their lives due to lack of safe legal procedures for abortion. Unskilled people and inadequate equipment only compound their problems.
Talking of the huge global canvas of nations in relation to the abortion laws that they have is certainly not possible here. But let us try and understand how these laws work in the beautiful land of South Africa, a country that has always been synonymous with an exciting history.
The laws in South Africa were liberalized in the year 1996 with the enactment of the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act. This act came into effect after it was observed that unsafe abortion procedures were putting the lives of many South African women in jeopardy. The act gives women of any age group, married or unmarried, an access to healthy abortion procedures and practices without any restrictions. Prior to this, there was a law back in the year 1975 that was highly rigid and restrictive. If a woman wanted an abortion, she required a physician’s approval and at times even the approval of a magistrate was asked for. This put the lives of a lot of women at stake. But thanks to the 1996 act, things look good now.
South Africa went through an Apartheid era as we all know. The discrimination between the black and the white people was very much there for everyone to see. It was observed that white women were given more healthy and lucrative job opportunities as compared to the blacks. They were even offered managerial posts and other higher positions in offices. So the white women found it easier to balance their jobs with their personal lives through the system of small nuclear families. In case of any unwanted pregnancies, they could get an abortion done from their private doctors. The justification given was that the pregnancy posed a risk to the woman’s life and hence it needed to be terminated. But most of these practitioners had to pay fines whenever they were caught. Black women on the other hand faced a lot of problems in getting an expert to perform an abortion. The fact that the abortion was performed by an untrained person posed a great risk to the lives of these women.
Moving forward to the year 1975, the people responsible for performing abortions were apprehensive about being fined or prosecuted. Hence they made a call for legalizing the process of abortions. Women organizations such as the Abortion Reform Action Group (ARAG) also took the initiative for the same so that lives of women could be saved. Together, they created a wave of public opinion in favour of legalization of abortions forcing the law-makers to take action. The outcome was the Abortion and Sterilization Act that was passed by the government in 1975.
But the act was only meant to appease the people. In reality it made things harder for women seeking abortions. As per the act, abortion was made legal and doctors carrying it out would no longer face any fines or prosecution. The real problem was that the act did not clearly specify the circumstances under which a woman could go in for an abortion. A woman could ask for abortion only if the child posed a serious threat to her life; or when there was a serious disability in the child; or for that matter if the pregnancy was a result of rape. For this to happen, she had to get an approval first from a physician and then a magistrate. So instead of providing women with an access to safe abortion practices, the act actually led to a rise in the number of unsafe and unskilled abortions. The formalities involved were too complex.
After several years of debates, discussions and protests, the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act finally came into effect in 1996. It did away with all the approvals that were asked for as per the earlier act. The right to seek abortion now solely rested with the woman. Even the husband or guardian’s consent was not required now. Even rape victims could seek an abortion without having to prove the rape charges first. Between the first 13 to 20 weeks of pregnancy, an abortion can be done if it is believed that the pregnancy can lead to health problems for the woman or the fetus, or if it is a result of rape.
But the effective implementation of the act is possible only if specialized education is given to the people involved and the services are made accessible to a large number of women through campaigns to create awareness among them.
South Africa’s abortion law stands out in that it recognizes the need for women to have access to a safe and legal abortion in case of unwanted pregnancies. The best part is that the only consent required is that of the woman. Abortion is a very sensitive issue with a lot of economic and social stigmas attached to it. What I feel is that it is the female who should be given the power to decide what to do. After all it is a question of her health and her life.
There are barriers to be overcome as far as the effective implementation of the 1996 act is concerned. But the recognition of every woman’s right to reproductive health by South Africa is something that other countries should try and emulate.