Selina Black was a mother of three and pregnant with a fourth child when she died due to complications from abortion-induced drugs. Sadly, her case is not as uncommon as one might expect as she is just one among hundreds of women who die from the antiquated and restrictive abortion law in Malawi. According to the 157 year-old law, abortions are only allowed if the woman’s life is at risk — abortions for any other reason are punishable with a 7-14-year prison sentence. Many times there are accidental or unintended pregnancies, which can be caused by an unreliable or complete lack of birth control, rape, incest or insufficient education and awareness. Many times women are not ready to raise a child due to their current situation. For some, motherhood would interfere with their education or employment, whereas others simply cannot afford to raise a child, have no support in doing so or have health problems which would prevent them from attaining a healthy pregnancy.
Many women then take matters into their own hands and attempt to terminate the pregnancy themselves. Among these unsafe methods is the common technique of inserting a stick with a sharpened end into the cervix to kill the developing fetus. Many times the equipment used in this method is not sanitized and this increases the chances of developing an infection, while other times, unskilled participants end up damaging more than just the fetus and end up with a disfigured uterus as well as hemorrhage. Another popular method of terminating pregnancy is consuming eclectic concoctions from traditional healers. These so called healers use various herbs to induce abortions and there is no way to foresee how the results will affect the consumer. Such suppliers of abortion-inducing concoctions or drugs can face up to three years in prison if caught. An obstetrician by the name of Chisale Mhango, who is employed at Malawi’s largest referral facility, said on average he receives 20-30 women daily with post-abortion complications.
Thus, the current abortion law needs revision so that it can encompass this spectrum of needs and therefore can actually cater to its people instead of restricting their choices. The fortunate part is that a new bill was drafted in 2015, it is an edit to the existing one and aims to provide greater freedom to the country’s women. If passed, the new Termination of Pregnancy Bill would make it legal to have an abortion if it threatens the physical or mental health of the woman, if fetal malformation would affect the general quality of life of the baby or in cases of rape, incest or other forms of defilement. The bill must go through the Cabinet of ministers before it can receive the final approval from the Parliament. The tragic bit is that although there has been a push for reformation, the bill has not yet been able to get past the Cabinet. Many influential Cabinet ministers are highly religious and cannot come to terms with the new draft, and as a result, the bill has spent the past three years in this phase. Something worth noting is that 81 percent of the country is Christian.
The delay in the new bill’s approval does not go without repercussions. In the year 2015 alone, there were approximately 141,000 abortions. Immediate action must be taken. There are many ways people can take action at a community level. The society must be educated on the health hazards of DIY abortion methods and contraceptives and where to obtain them. But more significantly, people need to put aside their religious differences and need to take a long hard look at the number of women that are suffering as a result from ignorance — the statistics speak for themselves. How many more women must succumb to detrimental abortion practices? How many more women must die from resulting post-abortion complications? How many more women have to face the vast sense of hopelessness so that they can receive an abortion? Each person is entitled to their own body, and thus should have the freedom to exercise their personal choices. At the end of the day, this is not a religious debate. Malawi, among many third-world countries, still follows conventional ideologies. The society has yet to recognize that the main concern at hand is not whether abortion is good or bad, it is about how the law is in place to protect the health of women, yet women are still dying at an increasing amount with each passing year.
Harleen Singh is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. Her column, "Here's to Your Health," runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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