Roe v Wade: Anniversary of overturning highlights access to abortion problems in SA
A year ago, the US became the fourth country to roll back abortion rights since 1994. On the last Friday of June 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe v Wade, which for 50 years had granted women in America constitutional protection to access abortion.
Last year, when women around America took to the streets in protest, there was widespread concern globally that what had happened in the US could trigger a universal rolling back of women’s rights. In African countries with large Christian populations, there was a specific concern that US religious conservatives would redouble their efforts to restrict abortion in Africa.
The Cape Town-based Women’s Legal Centre on Monday told Daily Maverick: “We have been broadly monitoring continental efforts to legalise abortion and have noted that since Roe, many NGOs leading these efforts have seen a rise in conservative resistance against their efforts.”
In overturning Roe v Wade, Justice Samuel Alito, in his 78-page opinion, said the 1973 decision “must be overruled” and that the arguments for that decision were “exceptionally weak”. The opinion was accompanied by an appendix of historical abortion laws – some, hundreds of years old – which Alito used to support the ruling.
Before this decision, only three other countries had rolled back abortion access: Iran, North Korea and Russia. Some countries, like El Salvador, Malta and Nicaragua, have outright bans, while in others, like Poland, Cameroon and Morocco, abortion is legal under certain conditions, but almost impossible to access.
Agreeing with Alito, Justice Clarence Thomas opened the gates to a flood of anti-female and anti-gay legislature and sentiment when he added that rulings around same-sex marriage, same-sex relationships and access to contraception should also be reconsidered on similar grounds.
Last Thursday, the US Supreme Court ruled to remove affirmative action from college admissions. And the following day, 30 June, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of a US web designer who cited their being a Christian as the reason they did not want to accept same-sex couples as clients. The designer had gone to court pre-emptively, fearing having to deal with such clients.
In South Africa, where abortion is legal, stigma remains rife. Access is a critical factor and one of the main drivers of backstreet abortions – despite the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996.
Number of affected women increasing
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) – the UN sexual and reproductive health agency – pointed out last year in their State of the World Population Report that, globally, “approximately half of all pregnancies today are unplanned and the number of affected women is increasing”.
The UNFPA’s mission is “to deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled”. A mammoth task, with the odds stacked against it at every turn. Unsafe abortions are the biggest risk factors for maternal mortality in the US and globally.
According to the World Health Organisation, “Around 45% of all abortions are unsafe, of which 97% take place in developing countries.” Also, “around 73 million induced abortions take place worldwide each year”.
Africa shared with Latin America the distinction that “the majority (about three out of four) of abortions are unsafe. In Africa, nearly half of all abortions occur under the least safe circumstances”.
The UNFPA says recent reporting has shown that “the organisations that sought to undo Roe vs Wade in the US are also supporting the rollback of sexual and reproductive health and rights in sub-Saharan Africa”.
In South Africa, the Women’s Legal Centre says “pregnancy crisis centres” (PCC) are also a problem – many are unregistered and their goal is to “dissuade women against abortions by using terms such as ‘murder’ and ‘post-abortion syndrome’.” According to the Women’s Legal Centre, the PCCs “operate by offering counselling in their centres that target pregnant women and are designed to talk them out of having an abortion.”
In 2018, Bhekisisa reported on faith-based NGOs refusing to give women information on where to go to terminate a pregnancy.
Today, says the Women’s Legal Centre, there is very little improvement in the situation on the ground for pregnant women wanting an abortion in South Africa:
“If anything, things might be getting worse. In 2021, the South African Health Review recorded that there was an overall increase in South Africa’s mortality and morbidity rates and that due to limited access to services, terminations of pregnancies had also decreased by 17%”.
The Women’s Legal Centre says that without government will and action, there is no chance the situation will improve.
“Government will need to first and foremost ensure that women have access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and make that a priority.”
The organisation notes that only once the government endorses and protects a woman’s right to choose, can the issues around sexual and reproductive health and rights begin to be addressed. DM