Abortion fallacies ignore the phallus

2011-07-02 11:14

Despite media reports to the contrary, there is little hard evidence to suggest that young women take the decision to terminate a pregnancy lightly or that it is used as “a method of birth control”.

In fact, the decision to abort is often a difficult, emotional process. Why would any woman prefer termination if she had access to easier and less invasive ways of avoiding pregnancy?

And, if some women do require more than one abortion during their reproductive years, who is to blame?

If we want to understand the realities of young women’s sexual and reproductive lives, and their choices in the face of such realities, blaming them is not the solution.

Cases where young women are forced to seek a second abortion should be viewed as an indictment of our society and our health system – and not a sign of moral failure or rampant irresponsibility on the part of young women.

Further, the media’s anecdotal stories of individual women who have had multiple abortions should not be seen to confirm a trend.Statistics on multiple abortions are not routinely collected in South Africa, hence the true magnitude of the issue is unknown.

Data from a study by the Guttmacher Institute in the US published in 2006 show that half of all women there who have abortions have had one before.

However, women who have had multiple abortions tend to be older than women having their first abortion and rather than relying on abortion as a means of contraception, they are more likely to have been using contraception in the month when they fell pregnant.

Making sure that women have access to high-quality contraceptive counselling and services is the best way to avoid the unintended pregnancies that lead to abortion.

Women have different contraceptive needs throughout their lives.

They require information on, and access to, a range of methods to allow them to choose a method that is appropriate to their circumstances.

Unfortunately, women have limited contraceptive options if they attend public clinics in South Africa, and misconceptions about contraception abound – among healthcare providers and women alike.

Healthcare providers notoriously offer only injectable methods to young women, believing that they are not responsible enough to remember to take the Pill every day.

Many providers also wrongly believe that long-acting methods, such as the intra-uterine contraceptive device (“the loop”), are not appropriate for young women or women who have not previously had children.

As a result, many young women in South Africa use injectable contraceptives.

These methods last for two to three months depending on the method.

Some women do not renew the contraceptive in time because they do not understand that the return to fertility is immediate at the end of the two- or three-month period.

Often these methods halt menstruation, and some women believe, contrary to medical evidence, that they need to “take breaks” from the method because it is “unhealthy” to not menstruate for prolonged periods.

Obviously, late renewal or taking breaks from the method negatively affect its effectiveness in the long term.A popular myth surrounding teenage pregnancy is that it is the fault of sexually promiscuous girls.

The role of male sexuality is erased from the equation.

Stigma surrounding young adults’ sexuality, and girls’ sexuality, in particular, creates a social context in which it is easier to blame young girls for the problem.

The pervasive gender inequalities and socioeconomic hardships that result in high levels of forced and/or transactional sex (as in sex in exchange for money, favours or gifts) are not discussed.

Girls bear the brunt of teenage pregnancies as they are stigmatised and frequently sent away from school.

In 2006, 14% of teenage girls were not in school because of pregnancy and, unfortunately, many girls who are forced to leave school as a result of pregnancy do not return.

If we are to be successful in addressing the problem of teen pregnancy, unequal power relations between women and men must be transformed.

Central to this is to recognise that women make rational choices about their lives, often in tough circumstances.

However, rather than acknowledging that women are best placed to make these decisions, we see reports indicating that women opt for abortion willy-nilly or as a form of contraception.

Such fallacies are underpinned by notions that women are “irresponsible” and should not be left to make autonomous decisions about their bodies.

This view feeds off centuries-old stereotypes about women being too feeble-minded to make important decisions.

It is the same kind of thinking that led colonial authorities, under pressure from male chiefs, to declare black women legal minors in terms of the Black Administration Act of 1927 in South Africa.

Current reports in the media can be viewed as a backlash against women and girls’ newfound post-apartheid freedom and an attempt to reverse gains made in sexual and gender rights.

It is not a coincidence that these reports are emerging at the same time as rumours about girls getting pregnant to access the measly child support grant (found to be untrue by a 2006 Human Sciences Research Council study) and a resurgence in practices such as ukuthwala and virginity testing, aimed at controlling women’s bodies and sexuality.

To reverse this trend, we need effective leadership in all spheres of society.

Public information on reproductive health and rights, and access to reproductive health services – especially contraception – need to be improved.This includes addressing prejudices and misinformation among healthcare providers, and strengthened sexual and reproductive health education in schools.

Finally, even if efforts to address gender inequality and improve contraceptive services are successful, there will continue to be a need for access to safe abortion services.

Our laws require that we recognise and respect women as moral citizens.

Integral to this is their right to make autonomous decisions about their lives and their bodies, which are fundamental to human dignity.

It is our collective responsibility to ensure that these choices exist and can be exercised without reprisal.

» Naomi Lince is a senior associate at Ibis Reproductive Health and Cathi Albertyn is a professor of law at Wits University. They are members of the Reproductive Rights Alliance

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