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Unsafe abortions on the rise in Africa

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Ed Knight
WVoN co-editor

The World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that clandestine abortion procedures cost the lives of 68,000 women per year in Africa.

Dr. Olive Sentubwe, reproductive and maternity health expert for the WHO, said that 85,000 women per year are treated for complications during abortions.

This represents an increase in deaths in a continent that is technically moving forward with abortion laws.

So how can this be explained?

Abortions are legal  and without restriction in Cape Verde, Tunisia, South Africa, and, within certain parameters, Zambia.  In 2005, Ethiopia expanded its exceptions to include cases of rape, incest and fetal impairment, joining relatively moderate nations such as Kenya and Algeria.

Among the most liberalised nations, however, attitudes towards abortion have been slow to reach a state of wide acceptance. In Zambia, unsafe abortions are actually on the rise due to a heavy social stigma and in turn a lack of awareness as to the procedure’s legality.

Jean Downey, director of New Life Crisis Pregnancy Centre (a religious organisation) in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, claims that “the kids are quite blasé” about abortion, and that the relaxation of laws in 1997 has now led to one procedure taking place every 10 minutes in the region.

This suggests that, while laws can be changed overnight, attitudes cannot.  Organisations dedicated to the advancement of reproductive health, such as the influential Guttmacher Institute, note that changes in law must be accompanied by education:

“A liberal abortion law does not ensure the safety of abortions. Service guidelines must be written and disseminated, providers must be trained, and governments must be committed to ensuring that safe abortions are available within the bounds of the law.”

In recent research the Institute notes that the relaxation of South Africa’s laws in 1997 caused a drop of 91% in abortion-related deaths from the period between 1994 and 1998–2001.

More broadly, they note that, although the overall number of abortions in Africa increased over the past decade, this was in line with the increasing number of women aged 15–44, with a consistent average of 29 abortions per 1,000 women between 2003 and 2008.

As ever, it seems that those suggesting a damaging increase in abortions and who speak of an “African genocide” can use the numbers to prove whatever they wish.

John Smeaton, of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, is one of those:

“This truth is that countries with strict laws against abortion have lower maternal death rates than countries which allow abortion widely,” he says.

“Ireland, where abortion is banned, has one of the world’s best maternal health records. Legalised abortion does nothing to improve medical care.”

While it is acceptable for Smeaton to presume that the medical infrastructure of a wealthy nation like Ireland is comparable to that of many African nations, it will not be for others.

It seems that, for both sides, statistics will be the most prized and misleading weapon for as long as the debate continues, which may be for a very long time indeed.

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