Updated: Jan 21
The notion that a (young) woman will lasciviously churn out unborn babies through her life, because a law permits it, is absurd. Women, who usually have to make these hard decisions, do not perceive themselves as routing centers for the unborn, even in the presence of the means that alleviate associated challenges. There are, usually, very good reasons.
Legalized abortion in Malawi is a discussion that needs to be had. Malawi references Sections 149 – 151 of the Penal Code of 1930 in contemporary determinations of legal positions on abortions. Expectedly, the law disapproves if, other than for the safety of the mother, you terminate a pregnancy. It does not matter if the fetus faces serious impairments, nor will rape and incest be good enough reasons to separate a raped child from some troubling fertilization occurring in her womb. Purchasing abortion services would get you 14 years in incarceration. Such are the hardline parameters that legislators are seeking to soften through the Termination of Pregnancy Bill. As we have learned over the past weeks, abortion denotes an important intersection between faith and governance in Malawi.
It is noteworthy to appreciate the contentiousness of abortion across the world. In the world’s largest economy, the United States, it defines the lines between faithful conservatives and liberals; and government is not afraid of invoking it when a family exceeds permissible appetites for children in China. Reproductive health choices, in general, will not receive a wink from the Vatican. In our case, it is about time we embraced the contentions, however sensitive…candidly.
On 6 December, the faith community led over 20,000 people to protest more pliable abortion laws, largely due to the embodiment of sin that tearing the bonds of a fetus from its mother epitomizes. Gauging by the numbers, the march captured the democratic right to amplify voices around a matter of national concern. Its uniqueness was the bonding of faiths, political interests and cultures because, when it comes to abortion, Malawians unite. The demonstrations were both a democratic and religious right, safeguarded under the constitution. Yet, this was not to be understood to be an imposition of one’s beliefs over those that would rather believe otherwise.
During the procession and in its aftermath, the pious ranted in the media against abortion, on a principle of faith. The sentiments highlighted a perception of deep anchorage in these beliefs, which justified the continued legitimacy of the colonial laws in our world today. While claiming their rights, we advise the faith community to factor in the diversity of beliefs in Malawi. The ultimatums to the legislature on 6 December ought to be grounded in the virtues of the democracy we fought for in 1993, which give precedence to mutual understanding among peoples within the same borders. Precisely, while we hold our unique and peculiar truths, we will respect those that look and act differently from us for holding theirs.
Abortion a matter of choice? Perhaps, yes.
Abortion is a personal matter, yet not an easy choice when the circumstances demand it. Our collective actions and positions need to invest in appreciating the difficult decisions that mothers must take to terminate pregnancies. Importantly, these circumstances will not spare the devout. It is clear that many sentiments limiting abortions to the marker of sin largely harbor callousness on the phenomena that force many women to give up an unseen child. Some enjoy the rare fortune of secure relationships where missing a period once, or twice, or more times is worth the celebration. Yet others have not had the bad luck of having to raise an unwanted child whose father is guaranteed to be absent from the mother’s and/or the child’s lives, but also who probably changed the course of their lives for the worst – the child being a constant and persistent reminder of a history that should not have happened.
A pregnancy always carries one of dichotomous effects. On the one hand, it is the gem to be displayed in the open, embracing the willingness to expose deep privacy to the world. For others, including the faithful, however, an accidental or illegitimate pregnancy creates shame, fears of excommunication from faiths and communities, and derisions in their circles such that concealing it is the easier and best route out. These men and women are usually forced into abortion to avoid the ridicule of faith and its subjects. Wanting to go incognito, many of these terminations will involve clumsy piercings or painkiller overdoses that potentially end up with more precarious health situations than hoped.
The evidence of unsafe abortions in Malawi, a pro-religious state as the 6 December marchers would like to see it, is becoming increasingly worrying. A recent study by the Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortions (COPUA), a project implemented by the Malawi Human Rights Youth Network, illustrates unsafe abortions contribute to 17% of all maternal deaths in Malawi, reflecting a staggering 87 deaths per every 100,000 births.
Building on unwanted children are development challenges, too, that transcend costs associated with unsafe abortions. In 2005, Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner published Freakonomics – A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, where they draw linkages between the lifting of an anti-abortion law in the United States after the mid-20th century and the reduction in crime rates that followed in the 90’s. They highlight the impact of raising an unwanted child has on the livelihood of the child, and the wider impacts of a pre-fixed felon on society. A blanket labelling of abortion as wickedness without evaluating the full circumstances of the act is tantamount to condemning people to a lifetime of raising children the women and families involved did not want, and doubling that with having to deal with the usually anticipated illicit conducts that will trace the child’s lifetime. Malawi has an opportunity to learn from countries that have dealt with these issues.
It is agreeable that faithful followers heed to the religious calls advising against abortion. The reasons are commonly moral and right. They are also right that some will take advantage of mellowed laws to engage carelessly. Indeed, perhaps children that would have grown into future leaders could have been saved. And in cases of rape, what was allowed to happen could be given a chance, for there may be spiritual wisdom hidden in malice. But religious institutions have a higher obligation to fulfill: cultivating a moral society. If they do their job, it will not matter which civil laws prevail.
The mandate of government, on the other hand, works for the protection of those whose conscience implores them to make sexual and reproductive choices, including unpalatable choices. It is no place of a government under a secular constitutional order to assert itself. The role of a democratic government recognizes the voices of all its people, the faithful and unfaithful alike, and particularly the voices of those that lack adequate numbers to be heard. It protects their rights regardless of beliefs, gender, race, ethnicity, age and other intersectional differences. These are the ties that we imposed on ourselves when we elected democratic rule, to extend the freedoms on people’s choices, counting in freedoms that unleash certain authorities over our own bodies.
As may be expected, women are usually on the receiving end when reproductive options have to be considered. Regarding abortion, it is obvious they are bound to live with the physical, and usually the mental, aftermaths. The exercise of free will for women of age is uniquely important in abortion cases, and tying abortion to legal proceedings only disempowers them. To cast some perspective, it not only improves women’s self-esteem but deals away the patriarchal elements of restrictive laws that men do not have to deal with in their daily lives, even when they are closely involved. Even when the decision is to keep a pregnancy, some fairness will have been guaranteed for everyone.
So, the hard truths…
Promoting a pro-choice provision in our laws need not be conflated with support for abortion. Rather, the government is required to guarantee that all Malawians are provided with adequate and appropriate healthcare in circumstances where unsafe methods are a credible option. A legal environment that allows the government and other practitioners to realize this for Malawians is what the new Bill seeks.
If faith is invoked during an abortion consideration, it should be realized under law and civil liberties, assuring mothers of the securities the State and faith community will provide.
The petition was handed to Honorable Juliana Lunguzi on 6 December, who surely comprehends the beliefs that underpin it. What follows is a rigorous process that will give due consideration to the circumstances that characterize all Malawians. Ms. Lunguzi, together with her group of lawmakers, will reconcile the views of the faithful, the unfaithful and the anti-faithful, with the counsel of the Malawi Law Commission (MLC). The MLC, which has examined the revision of the law under secular microscopic lens, guided by the Constitution, determines it will take more than a sin card to tilt from a democratic position.
Finally, parliamentarians will be running permutations of national budgets that will have to respond to rising post-abortion care, usually a consequence of the rising unsafe abortions. Studies indicate this figure may be running at anything between US$400,000 and US$1 million a year, sinking deep into Malawians’ pockets, depending on who’s study you want to believe. The chief sponsors of these post-abortion care procedures are taxpayers, many of whom ironically took to the streets on 6 December.