Children by choice not by chance

I did not want anything to do with this man. I had considered him a friend and yet he had just violated me so horribly. I had been raped before and that was a dark time in my life and I did not want to go down that route again. I was devastated when I found out that I was pregnant. This was a baby I could never love, did not want and had not planned for. I could not be like those young women who were trying to find hope out of being teenage mothers. The abortion procedure was backdoor. I was not even a statistic in that office. I was nameless. No one cared about me, just about the money he had paid them to help me get rid of this thing he had planted inside me. It hurt.”

A young, university woman finds herself pregnant after a lecturer forces himself on her on the same day that she discovers that the woman he claimed was his maid was in fact, his lover. She spent a weekend at an institution that offered young, pregnant mothers-to-be shelter where the harsh reality of what lay ahead for her was thrust forcefully before her. She was left reeling at the trauma that accompanied bringing up an unplanned and unwanted baby into this world. She knew immediately that being a young, university drop-out mother was not a path she would willingly take. She knew that she could not disappoint her mother who was a single-parent and had worked extra hard to see her into university where she was studying law. She also knew that her choice was between being a hopeless, young mother or, walking down an illegal path she knew she could never talk about openly or dare to think about.

She only got the money for the abortion after threatening to report him to the authorities. It was impossible to go back once the appointment had been booked. There was no one to counsel her or even to discuss her fears and concerns. She was alone. There was no one to hold her hand when the pain was ripping through her body in her hostel room back at university. She was on her own for those seven days she was bleeding and bloody. There was no medical attention, nothing. A week after the bleeding had stopped; she began to smell an unpleasant odor that came with a brownish-black discharge from her privates. Finally, a desperate cry to a peer educator managed to bring her the required medical attention that she needed.

This is but one story of the many stories of how a dream was going to fall off into the valley because of an unwanted pregnancy. Having a child should be a choice because the implications of having a child by chance can be so crippling and have negative consequences. Many girls and women have unsafe abortions in Zimbabwe.

According to Tamale, a leading sexuality expert, ‘ it is through the intersection of religion, the law and reinterpreted customs, [that] the complexity of African sexualities (particularly women’s) is instrumentalised, controlled and regulated by the patriarchal state.’ It is sad that the most politically surveyed and heavily regulated aspect of people’s lives is their sexuality. Laws and policies are being used to control and punish certain expressions of women’s reproduction, in this instance, that of women choosing not to carry their pregnancies to full term for one or more reasons.

According to section 60 of the Criminal Law and Codification Act, abortion is a crime which warrants “imprisonment of up to five years.” The Roman Catholic Church has lobbied the world over, trying to prohibit contraceptives, in-vitro fertilisation and abortion. This then leaves women powerless and unable to exercise their autonomy as beings. Religion, culture and the law come together to bolster patriarchy by ensuring that they control women’s bodies. Abortion therefore raises moral and legal questions. The legal question is should the practice be criminalized? And the moral question is: is it wrong to have an abortion? Who should decide whether or not to have a child? If criminalising abortion results in more harm than good to women and girls, then that regulation cannot be regarded as being reasonable and fair. Morality is firmly entrenched between the legs of a woman but whosemorality?

The sad reality is that as a society, we can continue to bury our heads in the sand, pretending that abortion is not happening when the truth is many women and girls are having to resort to unsafe procedures to terminate unwanted pregnancies. This results in high maternal mortality and morbidity rates as women choose to use risky methods which include inserting sharp objects into their uterus or drinking poisonous concoctions. Surprisingly, even in cases where abortion is permitted by the law (in cases of rape or when the life of the mother and the unborn child is threatened), the moral judgements of the authorities who perform the procedure or give the go ahead get in the way. Many women have failed to have a legal abortion because the magistrate just took their time to sign the order others who have had the order granted, have been discouraged by the attending doctor.

How does forcing someone to carry a child they do not want make the world a better place? Women’s freedom to make choices, right to dignity and autonomy is brutally restricted by laws on abortion. Women have the right to self-determination and they must be allowed to make informed reproductive choices. Denying them this experience is equating them to children who have to be guided as to what is right for them. Reducing incidences of unsafe abortion is an urgent public health concern which, if governments are serious about attaining zero mortality and morbidity, they should decriminalise abortion. Removing legal barriers to abortion does not only protect women’s health, but restores their dignity and upholds their basic human rights.