Fetus or the woman: Whose rights first?

By Joseph Kayira

At a workshop in Lilongwe a few days ago where journalists, priests and health experts discussed how to report on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) including the contentious issue of abortion, it was clear that the nation remains divided on whether or not abortion should be legalized. Organized by leading family planning organization – Banja La Mtsogolo – the workshop’s aim was to equip journalists with knowledge and skills on how to report among others – ‘the magnitude and impact of unsafe abortions in Malawi’.

Some of the topics at the training were: ‘Does our religion and culture promote unsafe abortions?’ and ‘Does it promote safe abortions?’ Other topics included ‘An overview of the termination and pregnancy bill’, ‘The role of the media in law reform’ and ‘How to report on abortion: Language and imagery to use’.

A review of both negative and positive stories on abortion and related issues in the local media revealed some shortcomings on the part of journalists. Out of ignorance or laziness many journalists fail to research before writing or reporting on SRHR. Misconceptions and long-held cultural and religious beliefs tend to have an upper hand when reporting issues related to abortion.

Brian Ligomeka, executive director of Centre for Solutions Journalism – a media organisation that seeks to fight for minority rights – says journalists must guard against reporting on jargon that demean and negatively impact on the health and rights of women – who for reasons – procure abortion.

“Sometimes the reporting on abortion and SRHR is so compromised that you wonder whether or not the journalists do research before they get down to writing stories. So, what we want is to help train journalists to report effectively on sexual and reproductive and health rights. The idea is to widen the scope of journalists when it comes to reporting minority issues and rights issues including abortion,” he says.

Ligomeka adds that abortion should be one of the topical issues that the media should be reporting on extensively “because it is a rights issue.” He says journalists must strive to go beyond misconceptions and myths publicly held regarding abortion law and reforms.

“Tell the people the truth on what the law says on abortion. Seek the views of the people. In the past people had negative attitude about abortion. Those who strongly hold opposing views on this topic should understand that the country cannot continue to deny health rights to women who would want to terminate a pregnancy. The media should write about these things to save thousands of women who die from complications of unsafe abortions,” he says.

So, what kills women? Findings by government indicate that 70,000 women and girls terminate pregnancies every year. Research also shows that 31,000 get treated of complications of unsafe termination of pregnancy while 17 percent of pregnancy-related deaths is attributed to unsafe abortions.

According to research, rural women and girls who have no access to certified health service providers suffer most and resort to using poisonous substances, sharp objects, drug overdose and herbs to carry out an abortion.

A research article ‘Incidence of induced abortion in Malawi, 2015’ says “In Malawi, abortion is legal only if performed to save a woman’s life; other attempts to procure an abortion are punishable by 7–14 years imprisonment. Most induced abortions in Malawi are performed under unsafe conditions, contributing to Malawi’s high maternal mortality ratio.”

The new law on abortion, among others, says girls and women will be allowed to terminate their pregnancies at hospitals with support from qualified health providers where he or she is of the opinion, in good faith that: The continued pregnancy will endanger the life of a pregnant woman; the termination of pregnancy is necessary to prevent injury to the physical or mental health of a pregnant woman; there is severe malformation of the fetus which will affect its viability or compatibility with life; or the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest or defilement: provided that the pregnancy has not exceeded sixteen (16) weeks from the date of conception.

It also outlaws seeking abortion services in hospitals due to socio-economic circumstances of the pregnant women. The proposed law adds: “termination of pregnancy shall not be performed on demand or for any other reason.”

Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortions (COPUA) says Malawi spends millions of kwachas to treat complications of unsafe abortions and post care abortion complications. It adds: “more painfully, families pay the cost of unsafe abortion when a woman is hospitalized or dies.”

COPUA says there are many reasons why women terminate pregnancies such as extra/ premarital pregnancy, rape or defilement, inability to support more children, to avoid being expelled from church, abusive relationships, desire of young girls to remain in school and pregnancy that is too close to the previous pregnancy.  

Renowned Malawian gynaecologist Dr Chisali Mhango says of 213 million pregnancies that occur each year worldwide, 40 percent are unplanned, of these half end in abortion, and half of those abortions are unsafe, that is 22 million, leading to 47,000 deaths from complications that follow.

He says abortion has become a topic issue lately in Malawi and that the views expressed are shaped by religious ideologies, ethics, culture and human rights. Dr Mhango adds that unfortunately many who speak on this issue stray from the subject matter. Many reveal misconceptions and myths publicly held regarding abortion law reform.

“The issue is not whether or not abortion is a good or a bad thing. Neither is it about abortion being legalised because abortion is already legal in this country. The issue is that women are dying in increasing numbers, despite the fact that as long ago as 1930, this country enacted a law specifically designed to prevent or eliminate abortion deaths as our moral duty,” Dr Mhango explains.

The other side of the abortion debate

While health experts, legislators, religious leaders, cultural enthusiasts and other key stakeholders seem not to make headway on the issue, the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) and the Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM) and the National Taskforce for the Promotion of Life and Family have made their point clear: “human life begins at conception.” In 2016, when the debate on abortion was so heated up, the ECM and EAM protested calls for the abortion bill to be enacted in Parliament at the time through the ‘Citizens March For Life and Family – Lighting the Candle’. 

A petition was presented to parliament protesting the enactment of the abortion bill. In a statement the ECM and EAM said: “We note with great concern that human life is under direct attack by “the agents of the culture of death, pushing for the liberalization of abortion in Malawi. The proposed “Termination of Pregnancy Bill”, “Killing of Unborn Children Bill” is not only against our culture, beliefs and laws but it is also a threat to human life. This pressure is clearly manifested under the guise of “safe abortion” or “sexual reproductive health rights” in order to promote the killing of unborn children.

“While rape, incest and defilement are undesirable, evil and sinful acts in the eyes of God, abortions resulting from such cases have no biblical or human rights basis. We would like to state categorically that the contents of the proposed Bill are not representative of the teachings of neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the Evangelical Association of Malawi. All instances of direct abortions, deliberate killing of innocent human beings are gravely evil and sinful.

“We remind all those entrusted with the delicate task of formulating laws that “any country that accepts abortion, is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what it wants… And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child how can we tell other people not to kill one another?” (St. Teresa of Calcutta).

“We call upon all Malawians of goodwill to stand up for life by saying NO to the culture of death as manifested in this proposed Bill. Human life must be respected, preserved, and defended from the moment of conception.”

The church said it would “stand up and publicly celebrate and reaffirm the following truths and facts about Life and the Family as enshrined in our laws, beliefs, culture and value systems as a nation”: That human life begins at conception; That human life is sacred; a fundamental value; created in the image of God; dignity of human life; That human life must be preserved, safeguarded and protected with extreme care from conception; That the right to life of the unborn child takes precedence over the right of a woman to control her body and as a result to procure an abortion; That all direct abortions, deliberate killing of an innocent human being are gravely evil and immoral; That sex and marriage are naturally between a man and a woman; That the union of man and woman is the naturally ideal and complete basic unit of a society.

In an interview with The Lamp magazine of December 2017, ECM secretary general Father Henry Saindi commenting on why pro-abortion campaigners were justifying termination of pregnancy said: “What we are saying is simple – even under the rare grounds where the pregnancy is as a result of rape, incest or defilement, there are no Biblical and human rights grounds for abortion.

“While rape, incest or defilement are undesirable, evil and sinful acts in the eyes of God, nowhere in the Bible do we see God instructing believers to abort a life that is conceived as a result of these conditions. This does not in any way suggest that God condones these undesirable and sinful acts. But rather it signifies the fact that human life, starting from conception is sacred before the eyes of God. Justice demands that only perpetrators pay for their crimes, not the innocent unborn child. Spiritual and psycho-social therapy and support services, as well as options for care provision to children born from pregnancies originating from these as well as the mothers should be prioritized.”

So, whose rights should society defend? The rights of the fetus or that of the woman carrying the fetus? Will pro-life advocates and abortion campaigners ever agree that “every person, including the unborn child, not only the mother, has the right to life as ECM and EAM put it? Perhaps this debate calls for another national conference to map the way forward in as far as sexual and reproductive health and rights, including abortion, are concerned.

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