By Gerrit van Rooyen
Imagine you are the parent of a 16-year-old daughter. She falls ill with the “flu”, so you put her to bed and give her some chicken soup. Her flu gets progressively worse and you start getting worried and phone to make a doctor’s appointment. Then she makes a shocking confession – your sweet, lovely angel has been pregnant for at least 2 months. You rush her to the nearest hospital. There the doctor says her fetus died and that she has contracted septicaemia – a few days later your angel is dead.
A couple of months ago a Grade 11 learner from my alma mater, DF Malan High School, a prestigious high school in the northern suburbs of Cape Town, died the same way. I felt particularly perturbed by this story, probably due to the proximity of the event and the tragic and unnecessary nature of this girl’s death.
I wondered, as her parents must have wondered, why she concealed her pregnancy. It takes no stretch of the imagination to conclude that she must have felt severe shame. I can only speculate, but I imagine that this poor girl was caught between a rock and a hard place. Given the school she attended it is likely that she was from a wealthy and religious family. She may, as many Christians in South Africa do, have believed that sex before marriage is a sin and that abortion is murder. These beliefs may have proven to be fatal.
One could argue that she sealed her fate by not telling her parents of her pregnancy, but she had another option. In South Africa a woman, of any age, and for any reason, can get a legal abortion within the first 13 weeks of her pregnancy and minors do not need parental consent to do so. If she was afraid of revealing her pregnancy to her friends and family she could have had an abortion – one of the safest medical procedures – that would have solved her dilemma and spared her life.
Such a decision would ordinarily be very difficult and frightening for any young girl to make on her own; in the present South African context it is even more difficult due the contempt for abortion from certain religious and cultural quarters. The stigma surrounding abortion contributes to many women either opting to have unwanted babies or falling prey to illegal abortions,which are thought to offer confidentiality.
In some cases South African women have to resort to illegal abortions, because the health care facilities in their neighbourhood refuse to perform abortions. Even if a clinic agrees to an abortion the women often face considerable abuse from nurses who are opposed to abortion. Lack of education and clever marketing are also reasons for the persistence of illegal abortions. At least 30% of South African women do not know that abortion is legal and of those that know 48% do not know the time limitations involved. Posters claiming “cheap”, “safe” and “pain free” abortions on walls and lampposts are a common sight near shopping centres and taxi ranks.
The number of deaths related to unsafe abortions has decreased by 50% since the introduction of the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act in 1997. Nonetheless, poor education, the stigma of abortion and poor policing of illegal abortion providers results in hundreds of unnecessary deaths from illegal abortions each year.
Anti-abortionists love displaying with placards reading “Abortion is murder”. I doubt whether many of these people actually know what murder means. An act of murder is defined as the unlawful and intentional killing of a human by another human.
The crux of the abortion debate is whether human rights should be extended to fetuses or not. If fetuses are not legally human then no murder can take place, despite a fetus being killed intentionally. Even if fetuses are legally human abortion is still not murder unless it is an unlawful killing. Ironically, the very same people who oppose abortion are often all too eager express their support for the death penalty or war. It is easy to forget that these are also examples of intentional killings of one human by another, because they have been so widely accepted as exceptions to the rule. If fetuses have a right to life; why not a prisoner on death row? Why can abortion not be an exception to the rule?
Whether you believe abortion is right or wrong depends entirely on your philosophical preference, i.e. whether you favour principle-based moral theories or effects-based moral theories. Abortion is a complex ethical judgement either way.
If you believe in the principle that life or ensoulment starts at conception and, therefore, that full human rights should be afforded since a human’s embryonic stage, then abortion can easily be dismissed as wrongful. However, even if this is your position you would be morally inclined to allow for certain exceptions such as cases of rape, incest, serious deformities of the fetus and when the mother’s life is in danger. Last year there was a great uproar in Ireland and abroad over the death of Savita Halappanavar in an Irish hospital, because doctors, in accordance with Irish law and against the wishes of the patient, refused to perform an abortion while the fetus had a heart beat.
What is the basis for Catholics and conservative Protestant’s belief that life must be protected from conception? Basically, they only believe this principle, because their church believes it to be correct. Other than Psalm 139 there are no convincing passages from the Bible to suggest that ensoulment starts at conception. As so often happens in the Bible, we find a contradictory view in Exodus 21:22, which suggest that ancient Jews did not think the killing of a fetus was murder:
“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows.”
Judging the morality of abortion on the effects of such a decision rather than on principle is no easier task. This involves weighing up the right to life of a fetus against a woman’s reproductive rights and the impact of abortion on society. The South African Constitution guarantees a women’s right to make “decisions concerning reproduction” and in Christian Lawyers Association v Minister of Health the Constitutional Court ruled that constitutional rights do not apply fetuses.
The non-religious person is not concerned about ensoulment, but rather the age viability. Although, a person only gains legal rights at birth it does seems immoral and inconsistent to allow abortions above a period of gestation where a successful birth is possible.
Most countries set the limit at around 20 weeks of gestation, only allowing an abortion after this time period if the women’s life is seriously endangered. But the advancements in medical technology have pushed back the age of viability to ages previously not thought possible. Amilla Taylor was borne in the UK at 21 weeks and six days, two weeks before the abortion cut-off date.
Abortion laws often come under fire for allowing women to use their socio-economic circumstances as a reason for abortion. In South Africa, on average, there are 50 000 legal abortions each year, the number of illegal abortions is estimated as being roughly the same. Many, if not most, women that opt for an abortion are poor, sometimes living in large households dependent on a single person for income. The prospects for the poor youth are bleak: over 51% of South Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 are unemployed. Many of them turn to a life of crime. South Africa is already struggling to cope with its crime rate and providing adequate services to its roughly 51 million residents. If there were an extra 100 000 newborns per year this would only have increased the socio- economic burden.
Controversial research (popularised in the book Freakonomics) by two American economists Steven Levitt and John J. Donahue III suggests that the legalisation of abortion in the USA in the 1970s played a significant role in reducing the crime rate in the 1990s. The argument goes that criminals are more often than not unwanted children and that the legalisation of abortion reduced the number of unwanted children being born and with it the crime rate.
Anti-abortionists usually plead that mothers rather opt for adoption than abortion. The disadvantages for the mother are that the pregnancy may render her jobless for a couple of months and that she might find it emotionally difficult to be separated from her child. In South Africa is adoption is not as ideal as it sounds, we are currently faced with over 2 million orphaned or abandoned children and only about 2000 children are adopted annually.
There are, however, a couple of negative consequences of abortion. One negative consequence of abortion that the law must also be mindful of is the use of abortion for sex selection. This is a massive problem Asia and particularly in China where about a million female fetuses are aborted each, because of China’s one-child policy and the culture preference for boys. Several studies also indicate that some women that have had abortions suffer emotionally trauma a view supported by the American Psychological association.
Off course, the whole unwanted pregnancy dilemma could (and preferably should) be avoided with contraception and planned pregnancies, but inevitably despite the best education programmes and availability of contraception there will be some unwanted pregnancies. Provided that abortion is safe, practised within the current legal framework, women are fully informed and have access to counseling I believe that the current South African abortions laws do more good than harm and should not be amended.