Abortion: what should the constitution say?

A survey on the constitution, carried out recently by an advocacy group, showed 40% of those interviewed are in favour of the constitution preserving full rights for women to have an abortion, while a few less (39%) believe it should be preserved only in certain instances, which must be clearly stated by law. Only 19% were completely opposed to the constitution preserving any rights for a woman to have an abortion.

Most telling of all, however, was the fact that, when separated into gender groups, more men than women were in favour of full rights for women to seek an abortion, 46% as opposed to 39%.

The government, which says it is aware of the rampant practice of illegal abortions, claims the only solution is the promotion of safe sex, but a spokesman for the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare admitted this was a huge challenge due to the unavailability of – and cultural resistance to – contraceptives.

A largely Christian society, abortion in Zimbabwe is condemned by both the church and the state:

“As a Christian, there’s no grey area: abortion is murder,” said a local Catholic priest. “The fetus, from conception, has a life, a soul, and we, as human beings, have no right to kill it.”

Neither does the law allow for any ambiguity. The termination of a pregnancy, according to the current constitution, is a criminal act, and is dealt with as such. But there are those who believe the law is out-dated and no longer relevant to modern society.

“Where does society begin to pass judgment?” asked a local advocate for legalising abortion in Zimbabwe. “Does it begin with the woman who aborts a fetus within the “safe” period of 12 weeks; or with the mother who gives birth and dumps the new-born in the cistern of a railway station toilet? Or, perhaps it should begin with a health care programme that does not offer women free access to contraception and sexual education.” “How can the pro-lifers boast that we are protecting the rights of the child, when the newspapers are full of horrendous stories of infanticide and baby dumping? It’s obvious there’s something very, very wrong,” she said. Norma and Themba are testimony to the resilience of the human body. Early one winter morning, when the babies were around two months old, their mothers – presumably sisters, possibly prostitutes – decided to pack up and leave their squalid one-bedroom shack and seek new opportunities. The babies did not feature in their plans. So, without a word to anyone, the women left them in the apartment, already cleared of all its contents, locked the door behind them, and disappeared. Some time later, neighbours grew concerned by the endless crying coming from the house, and the fact that the women had not been seen going in or coming out for at least two days.

They broke into the house and found the pair close to starvation. By the time they reached them, little Themba was too tired and weak to cry anymore and was lying completely motionless. The neighbours alerted social welfare which placed the babies in a city orphanage. Today, aged around one year old, the children are doing well. Norma has just taken her first steps, toddling unsteadily along in her baby-grow, arms outstretched to anyone who passes. When you reach down to lift her, she clings to you like she’ll never let go. Themba is more reserved, less trusting, but his big, bright eyes follow you wherever you go.

Orphanages, overseen by a struggling social welfare system, are full of children like Daniel, with little or no means to support them.

“With no money available locally, we seek most of our funding from outside the country,” says Mary, whose institution offers shelter to teenage girls who fall pregnant, largely through incest and rape, and takes in their babies if they feel unable to do so.

Women who do choose the abortion route say that although a “safe” legal abortion is exorbitant – around $350 – it’s still a lot cheaper than the cost of giving birth to a child in a city hospital. And the birth is only the start of the expenses that begin to mount when a baby is born.

There are those who cannot afford the “safe” option and resort, instead, to consulting traditional healers. A concoction of pungent herbs sold by traditional healers plying their wares from a seedy-looking market in one of Zimbabwe’s major cities, sells for around $40 a dose.

Few women are brave enough to stand up and be the isolated voice that goes against the moral and societal foundations. Instead they choose to stay silent and then risk a back-street abortion.

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Post published in: Analysis

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