The Right to Choose is not Enough: A Cautionary Tale
by Tracy Morison
Abortion on request has been legal for more than 25 years in South Africa. Yet, despite the country’s highly liberal laws, every year pregnant women die needlessly due to complications from unsafe, illegal abortions. These deaths make up about a quarter of the official avoidable pregnancy-related deaths counted by the Government, and they have increased in the last decade. Unfortunately, it is quite likely that some deaths related to unsafe, illegal abortion go unreported, so the number could be higher. Official estimates suggest that more than half of all abortions are informal, illegal and unsafe.
Abortion stigma is a major barrier to access. Public sector nurses frequently chastise patients seeking an abortion rather than giving birth or for ‘using abortion as contraception’, or publicly humiliate them, or disregard their privacy and confidentiality. Some women would rather risk using a private but illegal service than become a social pariah among their communities or families, especially if they are young.
“The underlying causes of morbidity and mortality from unsafe abortion today are not blood loss and infection but, rather, apathy and disdain toward women”
(Grimes et al 2006, The Lancet).
Worse, the facilities that are supposed to offer services just don’t. Sometimes this is because no one is willing to offer services. As conscientious objectors they don’t have to. Sometimes there is a lack of political will to provide the support needed to keep a controversial healthcare service running, at the risk of alienating conservative voters.
At last count less than half of the clinics the government says should be available actually are. Some are under-resourced and some cannot find staff who do not conscientiously object. Clinics that are open are overburdened. A recent news article reported that pregnant women had to queue overnight at one clinic. Many people simply don’t have the time, money, or freedom to travel to get public care or to access private care. Their only option then becomes an illegal abortion, which is sadly far more accessible. South African activists say that this situation is maintained by a conspiracy of silence.
The point of the story is this: the right to choose alone is not enough. They remain words on paper if they cannot be exercised.
The point of the story is this: the right to choose alone is not enough. They are just empty words on paper if the right cannot be exercised. The government must be held accountable for maintaining a system that supports people’s ability to exercise their rights and make choices about their reproductive lives.
So far, in Aotearoa New Zealand, we have seen some promise of this in the development of the new Telehealth Abortion service, DECIDE, which will increase access to care by allowing early medical abortion at home. Also promising is the strong cross-party support shown in the passage of the safe areas Bill—which will regulate harassment and intimidation of people accessing and delivering abortion care.
The right to abortion as healthcare was a hard-won right and one that cannot be taken for granted. It is imperative that services are literally, and not just theoretically, accessible; that service standards are upheld, offering patient-centred care; and that the rights of those who object to abortion do not trump the rights of others who choose it. It is up to us to speak up if something is not right or to report problems and concerns. It is up to us to ensure that we do not become part of a conspiracy of silence that makes our right to choose meaningless.
There are only data collected on cisgender women at present.