Geingob tackles abortion issue head-on

… Council of Churches bites back

By Maria Kandjungu

GOVERNMENT will have to legalise abortion in order to prevent needless deaths due to backstreet abortions, President Hage Geingob told Namibian youth this week. “One day, we have to pass the law to legalise abortion. People are dying because they have to go to dark corners. So, whether it is legal or not, people are doing it,” he acknowledged.

The President was responding to a question on whether government would consider legalising abortion in the near future, given the noted increase in deaths among women as a result of illegal abortions. The issue was raised by participants at the National Theatre of Namibia in Windhoek on Monday in an interactive debate at which the President engaged young voters directly for several hours.

President Geingob’s position on reproductive rights may not be universally popular in a conservative social setting, but it is backed up by evidence. Criminalising abortion has not helped reduce the frequency of illegal abortions or the risk to women. 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, which suggests young women are most at risk. The Health Ministry at the time also recorded 103 pregnancy-related deaths, with abortion being one of the leading contributors of such maternal deaths.

“We cannot deny it, it is happening. But it’s better to control it so that people can [access reproductive health services] legally, supervised and advised,” President Geingob added.

He told the youth that although abortion is a national concern, issues pertaining to culture and religion also have to be considered, “But one day we will have to legalise it. It may not be today but one day we will have to pass the law.”

The President further noted that legalising abortion would not only allow for a safer environment for affected women, but may also create room for more openness to talk about issues, such as safe sex, while addressing the difficulties of unwanted pregnancy.

Speaking to Confidente afterwards, Deputy Health Minister Juliet Kavetuna recalled former health minister Bernhard Haufiku’s call in 2018 for an urgent public dialogue on women’s reproductive rights, and the vexed issue of abortion.

Making reference to the over 7 000 abortions recorded in the country, Haufiku at the time said the numbers were staggering and that government needed to move fast to address the rampant illegal termination of pregnancies.

Kavetuna, however, believes that for as long as there is no majority demand from members of the public to show that they support the demand that abortion be legalised, the issue would not be a priority for the ministry.

“It is not a priority for the ministry at the moment. We still do not have any indication from members of the society on how many people want abortion to be legal, and government cannot take a position on this matter unless civil society starts the conversation and makes the demands.”

She said the statistics alone gave no clear indication whether these recorded abortions were so-called ‘backstreet’ or spontaneous abortions (miscarriages). “Those are statistics of people who were forced to show up at the hospital but at no point did they admit to have had an illegal abortion. Yes, it is called abortion. In other terms it could be miscarriage.”

Calling it “a short-cut”, the acting general secretary Council of Churches in Namibia, Ludwig Beukes, preferred to ignore the evidence of added risk to women to the criminalising of their reproductive rights, and said the council rather recommends alternatives to abortion, citing the long-term effects such as trauma could have on women.

“It is not just about the legal part of abortion, it is about the long-term effect, trauma and the guilt that people live with after doing abortion,” he said.

Critics among women rights groups though insist that men in particular should not have a right to legislate over women’s bodies or their reproductive organs, given that a woman’s womb is literally the only part of the human body that the State has jurisdiction over. A legal position, they say, that is untenable.

The Council of Churches is concerned though that the ministry lacks the counselling and support structures needed for women who are considering or may have undergone an abortion. This is something that needs to be addressed before talking about legalising abortion, Beukes felt.

“You have doctors doing the abortion but who is doing the counselling thereafter? These people later live with guilt over what they have done and there is no help available for them. What we are saying is there is a big area to walk on and abortion is just a short-cut… We will not support that.

“People think that legalising abortion will save people and stop backstreet abortions, but from what we have observed from South Africa, backstreet abortion is still happening. There are other issues associated with abortion that need to be looked at.”

Renowned human rights activist Rosa Namises said although she was thrilled with the President’s open-minded stance on the issue, she hoped it was not just a campaign gimmick to get people to vote and only to leave them high and dry thereafter.

“This is a life and death situation we are talking about, especially among our young girls. This has caused enough deaths, left many women sterile and outcast in a society that wants to control their wombs and we can no longer ignore it,” Namises said.

“I must say I am disappointed that political parties remain ignorant to women’s suffering and cries, who are also the majority of voters. No political party has brought forth any plan to address issues of violence, the killings, rape, teenage pregnancy. They have not even spoken about equity between women and men. We have specific issues concerning women but they are ignorant to all this.”

While in agreements that the re-examination of the current strict rules on legal abortion is long overdue, Dianne Hubbard Coordinator, Gender Research & Advocacy Project at the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) cautioned that abortion should not be looked at in isolation.

“I hope that we can have a national conversation about non-judgmental access to contraceptives, providing accessible information about family planning, reducing child sexual abuse in Namibia, enacting an improved law on access to abortion, and making sure that anyone who has an unwanted pregnancy is fully informed of all the options available,” she stated.