By Asser Ntinda
I fully agree with Ombudsman, John Walter, when he called on Namibians this week to reopen the debate about legalizing abortion in the country, following increased cases of girls and young women dumping newborn babies in plastic bags, leaving them to die gruesome deaths in valleys, dustbins and toilets.
Only a few lucky ones survive when unsuspecting passersby are awakened by crying voices in the bush and alerting the Police that something is fishy in this bush or that valley. And sure enough, upon searching, you see police officers emerging with fetus or crying babies with bruised faces wrapped in clothes and left to die and rot in bushes.
Walter was at pain to point out that abortion, baby dumping and infanticide were grave but common cases and Namibians should come up with measures to address these cases before they get out of hand. Abortion, whether we like it or not is a social problem we must learn to live with, despite our religious and social sensitivities we may hold dear to our faiths.
“Is legalizing abortion such a holy cow that we should not debate it and engage all stakeholders in constructive dialogue,?” he asked. “All I am suggesting is a way to find a solution to the problem.” I strongly believe that this question should be the starting point for Namibians to engage and interrogate themselves on this crucial issue and frame the solutions in such a manner that real issues are not blurred by sentimental sensitivities and religious overtones, which in many cases are religiously unrealistic.
People in South Africa have access to legal abortion across the country and it is very rare to read stories about babies being dumped in plastic bags in valleys and riverbeds there because there are specialized clinics that by law can perform abortion in safer conditions. In fact, by not legalizing abortion, we are forcing poor girls and women to conduct unsafe and risky abortions in their backyards and in toilets. The result is baby dumping, an ugly issue which has littered Police crime reports for many years.
I take off my hat for Dr Libertine Amathila, then Minister of Health and Social Services, who in the late 1990s, pursued Namibia’s first Draft Abortion and Sterilization Bill, which was to legalize abortion “on demand” up to 12 weeks in the country. Two main reasons were behind her pushing for the Bill to go through. One was to curb baby dumping, which was a common phenomenon then. The second was to sway people away from carrying out dangerous backyard abortions using the most unorthodox methods ever imagined by humanity.
The overriding objective, Dr Amadhila said then, was for us to arrive at an understanding that when a girl said she was not ready for a baby, she meant no. No amount of religious activism would change her “no.” She would do anything to ensure that the baby did not see the light of the day, even if it meant that she, too, would lose her life in the process. Most of them do so ready to die anyway.
The Draft Bill was first released for public input in June 1996. It was later followed by a full-scale research programme on abortion, which was commissioned by the government. The research was sanctioned by Dr Amathila. As a doctor by profession, her concern was about women conducting backyard illegal abortions when society could actually help them do it safely and legally. The research gathered data and statistics on the occurrence of back street abortions and the availability of contraceptives to both rural and urban women. Sister Namibia welcomed the Bill, saying that it was long overdue.
Dianne Hubbard wrote a piece on abortion on October 30, 1997, arguing that laws restricting access to abortion do not discourage women from having abortion. They simply drive it underground and into backstreet, with tragic consequences for women’s health and wellbeing.
No sooner had the Bill been made public, the Churches were on it, calling on the government to stop tabling the Bill altogether because “fetus” too “have a right to life.” Various marches were organized around the country, inciting people against the Bill. The Council of Churches in Namibia on numerous occasions called on the Government to drop the Abortion Bill. This prompted one woman in Windhoek in 1998 to tell the Churches: “Do not replace my rights with religion, nor with that of a fetus.” The anti abortion bill calls came at a time when South Africa was successfully legalizing abortion.
So hot was the debate that Dr Nickey Iyambo, Namibia’s first Minister of Health and Social Services told church leaders bluntly on June 27, 1996: If anti-abolitionists continue to refer to the Bill as unconstitutional and call those who support the Bill ‘motherless,’ I will stop listening to your views.”
But Dr Amathila, who replaced Dr Iyambo later, push-full and determined to see the bill sail through as she was, realized later that the Bill was heavily and unfortunately religionalized. With persistent revolt against the Bill led by the Churches, government was unfortunately forced to “abort the abortion bill.” Within two weeks of the Abortion Bill having been dropped in April 1999, South African newspapers started writing stories about abortion being available in South Africa for Namibians for as little as N$600.00.
The Windhoek Advertiser picked up the story and published the story headlined “SA abortions open to Namibia for N$600,” and went on to say “four Marie Stopes clinics situated in Soweto, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban were handling 20 abortion cases every day at each clinic. Two weeks later, Sister Namibia published contact numbers of all Marie Stopes clinics. Many Namibians chose that path.
The research programme that Dr Amathila had sanctioned revealed some startling statistics, which could have compelled Namibians to think twice before dropping the Bill altogether. Among them were the following:
**October-November 1993: Police launched investigation after a 32 year-old nurse from Tsumeb died from a backstreet abortion in which a local shopkeeper injected an unknown substance into her womb.
**June 3, 1996: A mother gave birth to a live baby girl in a field in Keetmanshoop and abandoned the baby there. The baby was later mutilated by dogs.
**March 1994: Two women were charged with culpable homicide after giving the daughter of one of them a mixture to drink intended to cause abortion but killed the pregnant woman instead.
**June 1995: A 17 year-old girl was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment (seven of which were suspended) for stabbing her newborn baby to death.
**August 1995: A 23 year-old woman was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for placing her three-day old baby in a plastic bag and abandoning her in a riverbed.
The list was long, but it made tragic reading. What is the solution? That is Ombudsman Walter’s main question. Shall we abort or shall we not? Whether we like it or not, the question is not whether women should abort or not. They do abort for various reasons. The question is whether to abort legally or illegally. That is where Ombudsman Walter is driving us at. We have to weigh the options.
We should look at the reality with open eyes and hearts and frame the solutions accordingly. Other countries have legalized abortions.
Are we more religious and God-fearing than them? What if God hates us for not doing anything about babies being dumped in riverbeds when we could take corrective measures like so many countries have done? In 1991, more than 35 000 abortions were performed in Sweden alone. Swedes remain religious and God-fearing. They feel no guilty. And they should not. Thousands of abortions are carried out in South Africa every year.
Those, too, who claim that legalizing abortion will cause women not to use contraceptives have no point either. Researches have revealed that most pregnancies are caused by failed contraceptives. Legalizing abortion means that women will still use contraceptives, but will have a second chance when contraceptives fail them. As they do, most of the time.
The religious overdrive that people should avoid sex until they are married has dismally failed with disastrous consequences. In this world of missed opportunities and unfulfilled promises, who said that everybody was going to be married? Abstaining from sex until married is no guarantee that one will get married anyway. Should that person avoid sex for the rest of his or her life when there is no guarantee that marriage would come his or her way one day? No one will fault us for legalizing abortion. The best option now is to legalize it now. On that score, I agree with Ombudsman John Walter.