THE one thing I remembered about 15 years ago when abortion was legalised was the relief. Not necessarily joy but hope that lives would be saved, great expectations that backstreet clinics would run out of business and a great sense of empowerment that women could finally make the painful, complicated choice for themselves.
As the Health Department soldiered on, fighting a persistent and overwhelming community stigma and dire lack of willing nurses and doctors, the hope remained that no teething problems could be as bad as the alternative – rampant illegal abortions.
Today, sitting at the legal abortion clinic at Dora Nginza Hospital, I see only the bleakness of a right that was given, without any support or counselling, to women and children who are so disempowered that they lack the life skills and the level of responsibility to use contraceptives.
In the narrow passage of the run-down clinic, I discovered a recklessness among teenagers who had found a convenient way out – despite the pain of having the procedure done only on light painkillers.
I looked at the 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds who sat on the bench waiting their turn and wondered: where is the empowerment in this? How did we allow this to happen? Was this the plan when parliament legalised abortion?
The girls will share with you the reasons they got pregnant: coercive sex, sex for airtime and shoes and hair products, or sex just for the hell of it. Questions on the use of contraceptives are generally met with an indifferent shrug. “Those things,” they will tell you, “are not for us.”
On the other side of the hospital the fight against illegal abortions continues, with an increasing number of women arriving critically ill, weak from loss of blood and in septic shock. Often, doctors will tell you, the girls who are turned away from the clinic because they are too far along in their pregnancy will travel a few kilometres into central Port Elizabeth to see an illegal abortion doctor, get the pills and try a home abortion – with potentially fatal consequences.
I also sat devastated as a post-abortion counsellor told me how patients would, years later, start to hear babies crying in their sleep.
Doctors are getting desperate. Despite a significant initial drop, the rate of illegal abortions has steadily been rising again for the past five years.
In my reporting on this I am trying not to judge. Someone who never had to take this decision should not be allowed to second guess the choices of those who did. But I remain deeply concerned about the way those decisions were taken and alarmed at the lack of life skills of teenagers and I have tried here to highlight the crisis, the consequences and the solutions – the story of a right gone very wrong.