South Africa’s Liberal Abortion Laws Affected by Public Disapproval

31 March, 2019

"Precious" is 26-years-old and 16 weeks pregnant. She asked VOA to call her by that name to protect her identity.

Her best friend is also pregnant by the same man – a man Precious once considered her boyfriend. This information led her to the difficult decision to seek an abortion.

Precious lives in South Africa, where such operations are legal. A woman can ask a health care worker to perform an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The woman is not required to provide a reason for the operation. After 12 weeks, she must state a reason and a doctor must be present.

But when Precious tried to end the pregnancy in her home city of Johannesburg, she had a problem.

"When I went to register my name, I simply said, ‘I want to do an abortion,' and then they said, ‘No,'" she told VOA.

"And there were two nurses there said, ‘no, you have to go back to your place and do it there.' Then we had a disagreement there, as, like, I'm being against God," Precious said.

Reproductive health activists say an experience like hers is fairly common. They say that is why 10,000 South African women every year have illegal abortions from unqualified providers.

South African health officials estimated that as many as 25 percent of all maternal deaths are from infectious miscarriages caused by illegal abortions. More than half of all abortions in the country are performed by unregistered providers. Yet all government hospitals offer the operation for free.

Precious was fearful that her neighbors would learn she had an abortion. So she chose to travel to the town of Rustenburg, where aid agency Doctors Without Borders operates a medical center that performs abortions for free.

'We give women a choice'

Whitney Chinogwenya works at Marie Stopes, one of South Africa's best-known private abortion providers. She says the company recently launched a campaign to reduce the stigma around abortion.

"When a woman wants to terminate a pregnancy, they're going to terminate the pregnancy," she told VOA from the company's office in Johannesburg.

She added that South Africa offers safe, legal and free abortions, but few women know that abortion is legal. They think they must go to an illegal provider.

Medical experts told VOA many stories of poor medical care, including giving patients the wrong medication.

'Somebody has to do it'

Nurse Kgaladi Mphahlele is the head of the Doctors Without Borders project in Rustenburg. He says demand for the group's services is high. He estimates he performs as many as 100 first-trimester abortions each month. He sees women from as far away as Botswana, where abortion is illegal.

He says he is proud of his decision to perform abortions.

"I look back, ‘why did I get myself into this profession?'" he said. He also said his friends and family support his decision.

Nurse Christa Tsomele has been performing abortions for 10 years. She is also satisfied with her work. She says she thinks some of her coworkers are adding to the stigma of abortion.

"If you can't help a patient as a nurse... don't just tell her, ‘no, I can't do that, or ‘I can't help you,' and leave the patient," she said. She added that patients should be told where to go to get an abortion.

She also says she does not care if people agree with her work. Abortion is legal and she is saving lives, she says.

I'm Susan Shand.

VOA's Anita Powell reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

nurse – n. someone who cares for the sick

maternal – adj. of a mother

miscarriage – n. the ending of pregnancy naturally

stigman. something that is thought of as very bad

trimester – n. a three-month period in a woman's pregnancy

proudadj. feeling extremely pleased

profession n. a job or occupation