PREGNANT teenagers are putting such a massive strain on Eastern Cape state abortion clinics that overwhelmed staff cannot meet the demand – forcing more desperate women into the lethal clutches of backstreet butchers.
On average, 50 abortions a day are performed at Eastern Cape clinics – many of them on children as young as 12.
Some of these children have been raped, some have been coerced into sex with promises of airtime and shoes, while others use abortion as a means of contraception.
EVERY 10 MINUTES: Sister Matilda Lugalo gets ready to perform an abortion on a teenager at Dora Nginza Women’s Clinic in Port Elizabeth
“Our patients are getting younger and younger. We have seen about six pregnant primary school pupils in the past month,” social worker Thandi Plaatjie, who works at the Healthy Mom and Baby Clinic in Jeffreys Bay, said.
“These girls know about sex. There is no problem with access to contraceptives.
“We do not know how to get through to them. They are not even scared of HIV. They often tell me, ‘I don’t mind about that. I can live with that’.
“One girl was 12 when she started having sex. Her mother put her on contraceptives. When I talked to her she said it was for airtime and for a relaxant cream for her hair.”
In the last year, more than 12000 legal abortions were done at state hospitals and clinics in the province.
Staff at the women’s clinic at Dora Nginza Hospital in Nelson Mandela Bay see up to 20 patients a day seeking abortions, and the monthly abortion rate has already doubled since January.
In the past five months, dozens of women were turned away from clinics because they were more than 12 weeks pregnant and the procedure must then be performed at a hospital, where there are long delays.
Many of these women then resort to backstreet abortions. This, in turn, is pushing up maternal death figures, which have doubled in the past three years.
Of the women The Herald’s team saw at Dora Nginza’s Women’s Clinic, most were teenagers and many were having their second or third termination.
“The kids are quite blasé and this is scary,” Jean Downey, the director of the New Life Crisis Pregnancy Centre in Uitenhage, said.
“If you talk about HIV or abstinence, which is the repeated message of the Department of Education’s programmes, they just switch off.
“Contraception is not working. We tell our children: here is a condom, here is the pill, but we are not teaching them accountability and responsibility.
“Parents no longer tell their children that sex is special and precious,” Downey said.
Provincial Health Department spokesman Sizwe Kupelo agreed.
“There is an increasing demand for abortion on demand because teenagers do not want to use contraceptives but instead use termination of pregnancy,” he said.
Repeat abortions for teenagers have risen at such an alarming rate that a doctor at Dora Nginza has been asked to do research on the reasons for it. Most abortions in the Eastern Cape are performed in the Bay, where 3137 terminations were done in the last year.
Many staff refuse to perform abortions on religious grounds. A special stipend for those who do perform them has still not been approved.
“Government has failed us,” Dr Mfundo Mabenge, the head of the Port Elizabeth Hospital Complex’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, said.
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“They compel us to offer a service for termination of pregnancy, but they give us no support. Demand is greater than we can handle,” he said. A total of 31 state hospitals and five clinics offer abortions in the Eastern Cape. But only Dora Nginza offers second-trimester abortions because of a dire lack of doctors willing to perform the service.
Mabenge said this situation had contributed greatly to the steady rise in illegal abortions.
He said establishing pregnancy confirmation centres at public places like shopping centres would go a long way towards getting women to abortion clinics on time.
“Currently women have to go to the clinics just to confirm their pregnancy and the clinics are already so overburdened. Finding out if someone is pregnant is not treated as a matter of urgency.”
THIS series of reports was done in collaboration with the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting as part of their project into maternal health in Africa: “The Promise of Life: Reproductive Choice in Africa.”