Backstreet abortion deaths call for legal interventions

OUR country’s transition to democracy enabled successful claims for gender equality and reproductive rights in the Constitution and in law but now more than ever, enactment of a progressive abortion law is imperative despite our broadly conservative society.

Namibia’s abortion law originates from the South African colonial era and is extremely restrictive. It does not reflect the democratic values of the constitution and the country’s stated commitment to gender equality. The criminalisation of abortion has driven many women to unsafe abortions. This exacerbates the already high levels of maternal mortality in the country.

The discourse around legislative measures to curb needless deaths caused by backstreet abortions and unwanted pregnancies also comes at a time when many women in our society die every year, or sustain injuries and disabilities due to unsafe abortions.

Abortion is a common medical experience, globally and in Namibia. Worldwide, approximately one in five pregnancies ends in abortion. But many societies understand abortion as a moral transgression, even if its benefits to public health are sanctioned legally. Namibia’s abortion culture reveals this paradox: abortion is often publicly condemned – by political authorities, healthcare workers, patients and their families – but privately sanctioned.

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The negative attitudes towards abortion and a woman’s right to make decisions about her fertility and reproduction are often shaped by conservative patriarchal gender norms. These norms take precedence over women’s reproductive autonomy.

Ministry of Health figures in 2018 revealed that 7,335 abortion cases had been recorded over a period of 10 months in 2016 – from April to December that year.

Only 138 of those were medical procedures, while the rest were non-medical or illegal street abortions. The abortions, according to the ministry, were mostly required by women under the age of 25. The Health Ministry at the time also recorded 103 pregnancy-related deaths, with abortion being one of the leading contributors of such maternal deaths.

In the face of this ensuing crisis, abortion in Namibia is restricted under the Abortion and Sterilisation Act of South Africa (1975), which Namibia inherited at the time of Independence from South Africa in March 1990. The act only allows for the termination of a pregnancy in cases of serious threat to the maternal or foetal health or when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest.

This restriction means that we may continue to experience unprecedented deaths that can be simply resolved by refreshing our laws.

Currently, it’s only women with means to afford to travel to South Africa who can safely terminate unwanted pregnancies because it was legalised there. The majority of women, especially young school girls with unwanted pregnancies resort to hazardous means of back street abortions which potentially leads loss of lives.

There is no denying that globally, unsafe abortion is one of the top five causes of maternal mortality, along with post-partum haemorrhage, sepsis, complications from delivery, and hypertensive disorder.

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In this regard, we are firmly in support of calls to redress our abortion laws and enact a modern law that empowers women with the right to choose what happens when they fall pregnant.