Women’s month started just a few days ago, and in addition to the usual praise of women’s strength, grace and beauty, something strange has been happening in Parliament.
A Private Member’s Bill was recently proposed by Cheryllyn Dudley, a Member of Parliament representing the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), a political party that describes itself as “standing for Christian Democratic principles.” Cheryllyn Dudley explains that the proposed changes to abortion laws are in line with her religious belief and the principles of her party.
If passed, the Bill proposed by Dudley would dramatically change the way women access abortion services or take away that right to access altogether.
For 21 years now, South African women have had access to safe, legal abortions thanks to the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996. The Act legalises abortions, provides women with access to birth control and information about their reproductive health through public hospitals and clinics around the country.
As with many of our laws, South Africa has some of the world’s most progressive legislation with regards to women’s reproductive health and access to abortions services.
As it stands, any woman in South Africa may have an abortion up to 12 weeks into the pregnancy. This is fairly standard in countries around the world where abortion is legal. What makes South Africa’s legislation unique is that from week 13 to 20, a woman may have an abortion if the pregnancy poses a risk to her or if it would “significantly affect” her “social or economic circumstances”.
This provision is unique and necessary in South Africa because of our high rates of poverty and sexual assault, amongst other factors. Research shows that poverty disproportionately affects black people and especially women. Furthermore, many women become pregnant as a result of sexual assault, such as rape or incest, and may not want to continue with the pregnancy. Cheryl Dudley and the ACDP wants to change all of this.
The Private Member’s Bill proposes that abortions past the 12th week only be performed if the pregnancy endangers a woman’s life or the foetus is severely malformed. In this case, a woman’s socio-economic status isn’t taken into account, whether she can afford to financially support herself and the baby, nor whether she is pregnant due to sexual assault.
This isn’t the only thing that makes the Bill draconian in its approach. The ACDP’s staunch stance against abortion extends further to actively trying to persuade women against abortions.
The Bill suggests a change to the current law that would require doctors and nurses to perform an ultrasound to estimate how long a woman wanting to have an abortion has been pregnant.
Again, our current legislation does not have this restriction in place for good reason. Firstly, many clinics and hospitals serving under-resourced areas simply cannot afford ultrasound machines to do those examinations. Secondly, the Bill says that mandatory counselling to any woman, regardless of how far along they are. Counselling must include “relevant information relating to the state of the development of the fetus, including the provision of electronic diagrams and photographs”. This is an unnecessary amendment to the current law, with no basis in reasoning, other than to emotionally manipulate women seeking abortions.
The provision of abortion services in South Africa isn’t perfect and because government has recognised that, in some towns and provinces, the services are outsourced to private providers such as Marie Stopes. Another barrier to accessing these services is that doctors and nurses at the clinics or hospitals judge and stigmatise women for their choices or simply refuse to perform the procedures.
With all of its faults, South Africa’s efforts to provide safe and legal abortions to women who choose to have them should be commended. Especially in light of the fact that in some countries women are prohibited from terminating their pregnancies, even in circumstances that could and have led to death.
At the end of the day, reasonable access to healthcare is a fundamental human right in South Africa and a woman’s autonomy over her body and choices is included in that right. The ACDP’s attempt to roll back this important aspect of women’s rights through an obscure mechanism in Parliament is nothing short of using women’s bodies as a stage for political theatre. Access to abortions should be safe and guaranteed for any woman that chooses to undergo the procedure. Women should not be forced to make unsafe choices to end pregnancies they did not plan and do not want, just because conservative politicians want to use anti-abortion legislation to police women’s morality.
The Rules Committee in Parliament is currently evaluating Cheryllyn Dudley’s Bill and as part of that process, is still considering public comment on it. Ironically, public comment is open until the 9th of August, otherwise known as Women’s Day.
You can read the text of the Bill and send comments, however long or short, to the Speaker of the National Assembly Ms Baleka Mbete (email@example.com) or Cheryllyn Dudley’s Personal Assistant, Mr Mongezi Magubane (firstname.lastname@example.org).
You can also email the committee who will decide on the Bill through the Health Committee Secretary in Parliament, Ms Vuyokazi Majalamba (email@example.com) and Health Committee chairperson, Ms Lindelwa Dunjwa (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Another option is to sign the petition set up by Amandla.mobi.com which will be sent to the Speaker of Parliament with your objections to the Bill.