South Africa


Roe v Wade: Anniversary of overturning highlights access to abortion problems in SA

Roe v Wade: Anniversary of overturning highlights access to abortion problems in SA
Abortion right activists protest in front of the Miami-Dade County Courthouse in Miami, Florida, United States, on 9 July 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Cristobal Herrera-Ulashevich)

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • lilley.roger says:

    I wonder what the Women’s Legal Centre’s view is on the increasing number of school-age girls who fall pregnant in SA. Most of these girls lose the opportunity to finish school and never develop their potential. Is abortion the best option? Surely prevention is better than cure. The solution must surely be to address and correct the African notion that a girl must ‘prove she can conceive’ in order to be ‘suitable’ to be a man’s wife. Society should stand up against flagrant promiscuity and focus on decency and the beauty of virginity – saving oneself for marriage. We must work hard to protect the family unit: One man and one wife.

    • marion henman says:

      I find it very ‘telling’ that there are no comments from any of the usual suspects on this matter. Maybe they’ve all read The Handmaidens Tale and think it’s a jolly good idea.

  • Adam B says:

    Surely in this day and age the real question should be “how is it that half of all pregnancies are unplanned?” Surely there is enough sex education in schools & culture that every woman (and man) knows how not to get pregnant, & the costs associated with contraception (before conception) are very low, & in some cases it’s free.

    There does seem to be some tangible bias in this reporting. I realise that the author believes that women’s rights are under threat but they could have at least contacted a few pregnancy crisis centres to verify the claims by WLC that many are unregistered & that they refuse to give information on where to go to terminate a pregnancy. A single article from 5 years ago is hardly a telling indictment on the current state of affairs.

    To look at the other side of the same coin, there are certain classes of organisations that offer counselling services & also sell abortion services – how likely is it that these counsellors are unbiased when they are funded by women who pay for abortions? Have any journalists attempted an exposé on them?

    The author claims that “access is a critical factor” but, as far as I am aware, TOPs are provided free of charge at government hospitals & there are numerous for-profit providers. Am I missing something? Was the limited access a result of the lockdown?

    I seem to have more questions than answers after reading this article.

    • Marijke Alblas says:

      Well I can give you an answer. As an abortion provider for more than 20 years I very well know how difficult it is for women to find a facility where they are being helped. Many of the government clinics / hospitals although they are supposed to offer a TOP service don’t provide this service. I came especially from Holland to offer to train nurses and doctors, since legalisation of abortion is not enough.I became the travelling abortion doctor, willing to train doctors and nurses, but very few were interested. They all use this so-called conscientious objection not to get involved. And hospital management doesn’t do anything about this. So many desperate women, often being send from pillar to post, in the end turn to these back street guys with promises of pain free, immediate service. And when the pills they buy for far too much money, are not successful they end up in the hospitals for incomplete TOP. Why weren” they helped in the first place?
      I can write much more about this subject, but leave it at this: women have the right to be well informed about family planning AND about their right to have an abortion, yes free of charge!
      I was one of the few second trimester abortion providers, but 4 months ago I stopped working, being 78 years old, the travelling up and down became too much for me. But sadly, no one followed me up.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.