The complications of unsafe, illegal abortions are a significant cause of maternal mortality in Botswana. Many women and young girls’ reproductive rights remain suppressed because abortion remains illegal in Botswana, even though many agree it is a woman’s right to decide when to bear a child or not. Mmegi Correspondent NNASARETHA KGAMANYANE writes
The heated debate amongst stakeholders mirrored the dialogue going on countrywide on whether to legalise abortion. As the debate on the death penalty, the divisions are stark. The entire affair is ‘either’, ‘or’ with no middle ground.
At present, the law in Botswana provides for abortion but only in specific cases. Generally, those lobbying for decriminalisation cite the role unsafe abortions play in maternal mortality, while those against invoking religious ‘right to life’ principles and morality arguments.
In the recent debate, one participant, Jimson Elliot said human beings were not only created in the image of God but that He had given humans the gift of procreation. Thus, human beings are co-creators of life alongside the author of life. As such, Elliot said, this sacred gift should always be valued and treasured and in God’s original plan, every pregnancy should be the result of the expression of love between a man and woman.
“A pregnancy should be wanted and each baby should be loved, valued and nurtured even before birth,” Elliot said. “Unfortunately, since the entrance of sin, Satan has made intentional efforts to mar the image of God, defacing all God’s gifts including the gift of procreation.
“Abortion is defined as any action aimed at the termination of pregnancy and does not include the spontaneous termination of a pregnancy known also as a miscarriage.” Mohumagadi Maseng, another participant at the debate, had a different view.
“We are all sinners and all sins are equal before the Lord,” she said. “I believe that for abortion to be perceived as a sin is unfair to woman, regardless of the reason attached to it.
“Like any personal choice, abortion is a personal choice that any girl, woman or couple may wish to make considering the circumstances they find themselves in. “Why would an abortion for a medically threatening pregnancy be okay and legal and why would it not be okay or legally allowed for those who want to terminate their pregnancies?”
Other debaters urged that terminating a pregnancy was not only sinful but also violated the unborn baby or foetus’ right to life while others said, like in South Africa and other countries that have legalised abortion, the termination can take place before the foetus becomes a human being.
Those who advocate for the right to abort say women and girls should be given the right to choose and avoid deaths caused by unsafe backyard procedures. In addition, women who carry unwanted babies to full term are often forced to struggle alone with unwanted fatherless children.
Those against decriminalisation counter by saying women should stay away from sexual activities if they are not married or ready to have a child. If they cannot stay away from sexual activities, they should rather use contraceptives.One of the most active women’s rights activists, former Cabinet minister, Botlhogile Tshireletso, believes there is a need to focus on the plight of young girls in this debate. Speaking recently at the launch of the findings of the SADC Gender Protocol Barometer, Tshireletso said the focus should be on adolescent Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) and three closely related themes: teenage pregnancies, child marriages and unsafe abortion.
“Emerging evidence suggests that all three of these are likely to increase as a result of the prolonged COVID-19 lockdowns in many countries.
“I am happy that the Barometer has also indicated issues surrounding abortion.
“Recently, we have seen a tremendous increase in teenage pregnancy locally.
“Looking at this issue of unsafe abortions, we have seen a lot of women dying because of unsafe abortions.”
Tshireletso said even if the government does not legalise abortions, it must at least come up with facilities that give services to assist women and young girls with unwanted pregnancies.
“If those facilities can give counselling services, at least they can save a lot of lives.
“Maybe they can change their minds about aborting.
“When we talk about abortion let’s not think ‘go senya mpa’.
“Many girls or women have reasons why they terminate the pregnancy and some end up dying from unsafe abortions,” she said.
Presenting the Barometer, Chigedze Virginia Chinyepi, a gender activist and Gender Links Alliance member for SADC, said Africa had the highest rates of unintended pregnancies in the world at 91 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 49, as compared to 35 per 1,000 for women in Europe and North America.
“About 89% of unintended pregnancies in Sub-Saharan Africa occur amongst women with unmet needs for contraception,” she said.
“The abortion rate in Africa has increased from 27 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 49, to 33 per 1,000 women since 1990.
“Unsafe abortions affect mostly poorer, unmarried women and adolescents, fuelling high maternal mortality rates in the region.”
Chinyepi said while the effects of COVID-19 on this situation were not as dire as global health authorities had expected, the pandemic did lead to increases in unwanted pregnancies and demands for safe abortion. COVID-19 also slowed down the campaigns for safe abortion in many countries.
While all SADC countries allow abortion when pregnancy is a risk to the mother’s life, only South Africa and Mozambique allow abortion ‘on demand’.
“Abortion laws were most restrictive in Madagascar and Malawi where the only ground for abortion is the risk to life.
“However, in Malawi, a new court ruling has injected new energy into the safe abortion campaign.
“The case involved the statutory rape and pregnancy of a 15-year-old girl during the lockdown.
“She sought the court’s intervention because she said the pregnancy threatened her life.”
Globally, there is debate on whether to advocate for the decriminalisation of abortion or for the legislation of safe abortions, a medical procedure that should be available to all women, Chinyepi said.
Medication abortion is a safe and effective self-managed procedure to end an early pregnancy that gained ground in Latin America and is now in use across the globe.
In Botswana, COVID-19’s impact on the abortion debate has been significant. Speaking at the International Safe Abortion commemoration in Gaborone recently, the director of local NGO, Success Capital, Dumiso Gasha said the pandemic illuminated challenges and complexities around health and rights that included access to safe abortion, affordability and quality of related care.
He added that the debate on abortions also includes issues such as stigma, socio-economic conditions including poverty, literacy, means of livelihood and service delivery.
The Ministry of Health and Wellness is yet to take a position on whether to review the laws around abortion.