What’s wrong with abortion?

Is there a war on women’s health care? Yes.

In the United States, the last week has seen one aspect of it, in explosive terms that continue to reverberate. Komen. Planned Parenthood. Abortion.

Abortion is but one front in the war on women’s health in the United States. Maternal mortality. Shackling women prisoners in childbirth. Bad care. Abusive care. Refusal of care.

The war on women’s health in the United States is a war without borders. So, let’s talk about abortion and ‘Africa’, the continent … and the country. After all, the US Republican Party believes that “abortion is the leading cause of death in the black community.”

And then of course there’s Republican Representative Chris Smith who traveled ‘all the way’ to Kenya to make sure that the new Constitution, which bans abortion, wouldn’t allow an exception, “abortions to preserve the health of the mother.” Smith’s African abortion adventure even caught the attention of … Africa Is a Country! One of the few times this site has mentioned abortion.

Last month, The Lancet published a Guttmacher Institute study, “Induced abortion: incidence and trends worldwide from 1995 to 2008.” The findings were fairly widely publicized. For example, a leading Argentine paper commented on the findings just this week. In a nutshell, the study indicated that criminalizing abortion doesn’t reduce its rate. It increases the rates as in so doing intensifies the dangers. The study provided little comfort, to put it mildly.

The altogether predictable dangers of illegal abortions are of particular consequence on the African continent. The study reports that of 6.4 million abortions carried out on the continent in 2008, only 3% were performed under safe conditions. In 2008, thirteen percent of all pregnancies in Africa ended in abortions. The World Health Organization estimates that in 2008 14% of maternal deaths were due to unsafe abortions. Ever year about 1.7 million women are hospitalized due to complications from unsafe abortions. The situation for women in rural areas is, again predictably, much worse, and much more intensely so. In 2008, 92% of women on the African continent lived in countries with restrictive abortion laws.

The somewhat happy outlier to this picture is South Africa. There, with the most liberal abortion laws and policies on the continent, the actual rate of abortion is the lowest … on the continent. There, with the most liberal abortion laws on the continent, abortion-related deaths dropped by 91% between 1994 and 2008. It’s not perfect, by a long shot, but it’s something.

Criminalizing abortion kills, maims and otherwise has harmed and continues to harm women across the continent.

So, how does abortion in Africa get covered? Most of the reports were general, covering the numbers, but two stand out for their ‘case study’ approach.

When the Guttmacher study came out, the BBC ran a human-interest sidebar, the testimony of Akech Ayimba, a Kenyan woman. Ayimba describes her life, her two abortions, her current work as a counselor to women who have had abortions. She also describes herself as, now, pro-life. The BBC focuses on her being ‘pro-life.’ The caption beneath her photo reads: “Akech Ayimba after her unsafe abortions now has a pro-life position.” That’s it. Nothing more. Ayimba’s words speak of the difficulties, the pain, the questions, the arc of a life, but somehow the BBC reduces all of that to … “a pro-life position.”

On the other hand, last Tuesday, the Christian Science Monitor reported on Isabel, a young woman in Mozambique. Isabel had an abortion at the age of 15. Abortion is illegal in Mozambique. Today, ten years later, she is ‘one of the lucky ones’. She’s alive. She’s healthy, and she has a healthy child, who is five years old. In March, Mozambique will most likely vote through a liberalization of abortion policies, allowing for legal and voluntary abortions in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.

The difference between the BBC case study and that of the Christian Science Monitor is one of focus. For Ayimba, as represented by the BBC, the crisis is seen among the survivors, the scars and syndromes. For Isabel, as represented by the Christian Science Monitor, the crisis is seen among the invisible, the women who died, who cannot speak for themselves.

Meanwhile, the world continues to produce global patterns of death from criminalized abortion. Yes, there is a war on women’s health.



Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an Associate Professor at George Washington University.

  1. “What’s Wrong with Abortion?” is a rather flippant – if not eschewed approach to the issue.

    A former (Indian/Muslim) G/F of mine (circa: 1972) did her nursing at Peninsula Nursing College in Cape Town – but opted to study her midwifery at Baragwanath Hospital because of the incredible number of pregnancy and abortion cases and subsequent problems. She wanted the best education (able to serve her fellow gender) – one that would be accepted and respected by hospitals world-wide. (e.g. Guy’s, UK welcomed/begged those who qualified at Baragwanath to join them.)

    As abortion was illegal in South Africa – for those who could not afford to fly to Swaziland, UK or Switzerland – the backstreet abortion clinics (butchers) were their only option. So many young girls “hacked” their own womanhood up with wire coat-hangers.

    Abortion vs. Pro-Life is an unnatural conflict the “Christian Right” impose upon unsuspecting women – many of whom are raped – often most violently, or victims of incest or those women/children suffering some or other genetic or mental handicap. Never – in 30 years have I heard of a veritable case study where these (loud mouthed opponents) impeding women’s choices (health) have come to the fore and provided available solutions for these victims – subsistence allowance, health, education and happiness with their “forced upon” decisions.

    This is one of the main attacks against Mother Teresa (on the Indian Sub-continent) – as she prevented so many tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of young Indian girls (children having babies) from being spared continued lives of poverty.

    Abortion is a humane way of helping women take control of their own lives (not an easy cop-out as the Moral Majority – which is neither proclaim) for birth control …

    1. Thanks for your close reading as well as your years of committed engagement, work and labour. I don’t mean for the piece to be flippant. If anything, a bit outraged. And I certainly agree with your basic argument, that abortion is a humane way of helping women take control of their own lives. One of the links suggests, perhaps, a trajectory that articulates with yours: “Abortion: A road to Damascus”: http://mg.co.za/article/2011-09-30-abortion-a-road-to-damascus/.

  2. Reblogged this on Jesika Smith and commented:
    People make it sound like Planned Parenthood only gives abortions. The funding Planned Parenthood uses towards abortions is only 3 percent of all their funding. 3 percent out of 100 percent. So many people fail to realize (maybe nbecause they have never been to one) that it also treats women for almost all other women related health problems. Screening for cervical and breast cancer, std testing, and I think even prenatal care.

    There is no reason why women should be attacked this hard for wanting to have an abortion. Some say it’s a gift from god and you MUST not kill it, but not everyone believes in god so that’s really not fair for them. I was driving through Florida right after the new year this year and saw about fifty billboards that lies by saying you baby has a heartbeat 18 days after conception, that is in no way true, and has only come about because Ohio lawmakers wanted to make a new anti-abortiona law that would make it impossible for a women to get an abortion basically once she realised she has missed her period and may be pregnant. SO that by the time you even find out you are pregnant it’s already tool ate to consider getting an abortion because your baby has a “heartbeat” when scientifically (even though it can vary from person to person) generally there is not heartbeat earliest is about 4 weeks latest about 5-9 weeks. That’s still not anything like 2 and a half weeks. Even still its way after the heartbeat begins that it can even pump and live on it’s own and is completly dependent on the mother for a month or more.

    My last gripe with anti-abortion laws are that so many children are born in to unwanted homes. I know everyones first solution to that ADOPTION! However we have way too many kids in orphanages that are never getting adopted and they will be forced out onto the streets when they turn 18 and are no longer allowed to be care for by fosters or orphanages. Adoption really only works if you are a toddler and super cute otherwise no one wants you. How does that make these kids feel. I am not saying all these kids should have just been aborted, but if their mother wanted to get one because she knew she was either on drugs, or had no money, or was a child herself both parties would have probably been better off.

    Women don’t enjoy having abortions anymore than they enjoy giving their children up for adoption. This isn’t something that is goingto make millions of women happy or go out and start getting abortions for the hell of it. It is something that so many women live with for the rest of their lives sometimes wondering if it was the right decision. But that is up to the women and not a male lawmaker who can never understand this situation at all.

    So, yes, I agree there is a war on women’s healthcare.

  3. If people believe that abortion is morally wrong, nothing will really change their stance. Such people have already concluded that anyone who procures an abortion should be prepared for the consequences. And the consequences may include the possibility of death due to poor and unsafe conditions. In other words, if you don’t want to suffer such consequences, don’t do it. A society, which is morally opposed to abortion, will not allow it on grounds that the consequences of doing so are severe.

    I know this is simplistic of an argument, but I think it eschews the thoughts of people I have interacted with in Africa–to be precise, in just a few of its countries. In my view we have to hope for the death of religion if abortion is to ever get legalized in Africa. Or hope for a very liberal judicial system that will circumvent the will of the people. Both wishes are not without consequences.

  4. As much as I agree having access to an abortion carried out in hospital is far more desirable than in some back street, I’m still not sold that abortion is the best solution for an unwanted pregnancy. Having said that I feel there’s a way this debate is merely a vehicle for frothing at the mouth fundamentalists of various shades to bash folk they don’t like at the expense of the issue itself. There is the way that this, and several other live issues, are being brought up in African societies by know it all westerner/ngo type people who set up their personal perspectives as an absolute standard that everybody else is measured by that really grinds my gears.

  5. When is this debate going to focus some attention on the males? Why is it openly assumed that the males are never to learn or be taught self control and not that it is their sole privilege to have sex with no consequences. Until that is on the table the moral transgression will always be the stigma of being a pregnant female.

    White Crow

    1. This is an interesting and fresh perspective you just pointed out White Crow because men are the ones usually driving these anti abortion regulations and see women bodies as these receptacles to carry on humanity with or without their consent. It is true that women are the ones who always get blamed for unwanted pregnancy while the rapists or boyfriends or husbands don’t (always) have to deal with the consequences. So I agree that it’s a two thronged issue: Not only to protect women from unsafe abortions but also protect women from loose men.

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