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.