Have you felt the outrage rippling through the internet and cascading into your newsfeed these past few weeks? The incredulous exclamations, the furious blogging, the jaded and cynical observations of onlookers as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that for-profit employers can refuse to cover the cost of certain contraceptives for female employees, because they believe these contraceptives amount to abortions? As far as humanity goes, corporations just have more of it.
Why am I leading with a conversation that is taking place in the U.S.? Perhaps it is because it stands in such stark contrast to our own conversation about women’s reproductive health and reproductive justice. South African women can claim that they are in theory being treated as responsible agents of their own sexuality. Abortion has been legal since 1974 with strict restrictions, and those were lifted in 1997 and extended to allow for a woman’s freedom of choice regarding her own reproductive health. It even – and I think this is important – allowed for terminations of pregnancies by women under 18 in cases where they chose not to consult with their parents. This acknowledges that women have sexual agency independent of outside factors and that they have both the ability and the right to act responsibly on behalf of their own reproductive health. An amendment passed in 2008 intended to expand access by allowing registered nurses and midwives to perform the procedure (with restrictions) as well.
South African women also theoretically have access to free oral contraception, emergency contraception and, at some clinics, permanent sterilisation procedures. Earlier this year the roll-out of a free contraceptive implant with a similarly high success rate as the IUD was announced as well. None of these require the consent of anyone other than the woman herself. A woman who chooses to get an abortion in South Africa also has the option of doing so discreetly and not being harassed by protesters in front of a clinic, as is regularly the case in the United States (and the subject of another recent and controversial ruling). Pro-life rallies over here tend to go by rather unnoticed, an unexpected upside to the stereotypical South African apathy.
When you look at it that way, South African women should consider themselves fortunate, right? Yet a disturbing number of women still suffer and in some cases die due to complications arising from illegal back-alley abortions. Why would women resort to unsafe procedures when legal, safe procedures are available to them? The answer is two-fold: firstly, it appears that many women do not know that abortion is legal, and secondly, in many places the services that are supposed to be provided simply are not. Add to that the fact that societal attitudes towards abortion remain a moral gray area, which we as South Africans choose to simply not talk about lest it suddenly becomes a thing we need to deal with.
Like so many other issues that I’m concerned with, this one starts with a conversation. I was recently told by a foreign friend that “South Africa has more important problems” than the gender question. Do we? Are all of these questions not really in the end the same question framed differently – questions of inequality? Not surprisingly, we have decided that the question of racial equality trumps gender equality, but can we really justify ignoring the fact that in so many cases these two problems, like poverty too, are so closely connected that they are almost inseparable? And can we really justify the increasing tunnel vision with which we’ve been confronting our beasts?
Sixteen years ago South African women were acknowledged as free agents as far as reproductive health is concerned, and theoretically the opportunity exists to exercise that freedom in any number of ways. The Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act is a liberating legal document, one of the most progressive in the world, in fact. And yet today, service delivery is so poor that many of the women who need access to reproductive healthcare simply cannot get it. Failure on the part of the government to address this problem, to even say the words aloud, leads to a radical disenfranchisement of the women they promised to empower back in 1994. Slowly but surely, the façade of that promise is cracking and what lies beneath is revealed to be nothing but the baritone echoes of traitors.
Hiding behind the law, they now accuse us of being irresponsible with our bodies and of using abortions as contraceptives, despite the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act explicitly “believing that termination of pregnancy is not a form of contraception or population control”. This unfounded accusation, based on nothing but conjecture, is an insult to all women in South Africa. Claiming that a woman would rather have an abortion than use contraceptives is a shockingly ignorant statement, made on multiple occasions by Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi and National Department of Health spokesman Fidel Habebe. It shows complete disregard for women’s bodily experience, and insists that women do not know or cannot imagine the consequences of having to terminate a pregnancy. It’s also willfully ignorant of two other important factors: contraception can and does fail from time to time, and South Africa has one of the highest sexual abuse rates in the world, many of which go unreported and a significant number of which result in pregnancy.
Sixteen years ago they were ready to admit that we are capable of sound judgment, today we are again the juvenile delinquents incapable of proper moral deliberation, scolded by an impatient authority for behaving improperly.
An illegal abortion is a risk no woman should have to take, physically, emotionally and psychologically. Isn’t it enough that so many women have to face these challenges alone, for a myriad of reasons, all of which are wrong? They are taking away our dignity, and we demand it back. Forcing women into shame for taking charge of their own bodies is not the policy of a liberated government, nor is forcing them into illegal and unsafe abortions or unwanted motherhood.
Sixteen years ago South Africa was set up to be a world leader in rights for traditionally marginalised groups, and yet today it seems intent on forgetting its women. What happened?