Current issues facing safe abortion practices in South Africa

Prepared by: Esther Ooko, Beat Sexism South Africa

Abortion was legalized in South Africa in 1997 subject to a number of circumstances. But today, a woman of any age in South Africa can have an abortion provided that she is less than 13 weeks pregnant. This has made South Africa quite progressive in terms of its legislation regarding reproductive justice.

Recent issues, however, have revealed that legislation sometimes is only paper thin. Though abortion is legal in South Africa, Amnesty International has found that less than 7% of South African public health facilities perform abortions; creating challenges to its safe access for a huge portion of the female population. In fact, it is found that more than half of the estimated 260,000 abortions that take place in South Africa each year are illegal. Why so? This question is one of the many issues to be tackled at the International Conference on Abortion and Reproductive Justice in South Africa. This conference is being held at Rhodes University between the 8th -12th of July. The conference aims to discuss public health policies and practice models relating to abortion and reproductive justice in both developed and developing countries.

I would like to have a look at some of the issues I believe are acting as a barrier to safe
abortion practice:

1. The stigma
2. Lack of services
3. The fiscal crisis in the South African healthcare sector
4. Strong patriarchal culture
5. Lack of knowledge on one’s rights with regards to abortion

Abortion may be good to go on the face of the law but as far as society is concerned, there is still some contention. A lot of women in South Africa may opt for backdoor procedures because of the extreme privacy it may entail and the shame holding them back from proceeding to public health facilities. Though designated public health facilities have the responsibility to provide abortion services, often time the personal views of the health personnel overcome them and they end up denying the service to women. In addition to this, it is found that some staff members transfer to different departments other than the ones responsible for abortions in order to avoid a conflict in their morale. However, this leaves the abortion departments short staffed. Thereby failing to provide a constitutionally entrenched service.

Public health facilities also face massive cuts in their resources. Hence they may be willing to provide the abortion services but are lacking the necessary resources to carry out the procedure. Women in South Africa are also lacking in the necessary knowledge of abortion eligibility requirements. This leads to a lot of women being turned away for they have passed the safe limit upon which abortion services may be conducted. Most of these women did not there was a safe period to heed.

The Constitution of South Africa recognizes the right to human dignity in section 10 of the Bill of Rights. The denial or restriction of abortions constitutes an invasion of that right. The Constitution also recognizes reproductive rights (S27). These rights include the universal access to reproductive healthcare services including family planning and contraception, termination of pregnancy, sexuality education and counseling programs. As a woman in South Africa, you are entitled to a safe termination of your pregnancy if it is your wish. You are protected by the law and subject to no prejudicial questioning. The conference mentioned at the beginning of this article is bringing together a great many intellectuals and influential people from Africa to bring about a solution to some of the issues I have highlighted in this article. Hopefully, by the end of the conference, solid solutions may be implemented to ensure a safer South Africa for every woman.

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