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Men Should Not Call the Shots in Debating Malawi’s Abortion Bill

Tim Murphy was, until October 2017, an ardent fighter against legalized abortion in the United States House of Representatives. A household name in the anti-abortion lobby, it took Mr. Murphy’s extramarital lover, who informed him she was pregnant with his child, for him to turn to abortion as the recourse that would save his good name in front of his constituents as well as in front of his wife. To cut a long story short, his lover leaked their texts and today Mr. Murphy is like you and me, perhaps just another regular man still trying to figure out politicians.

Mr. Murphy’s case is a great benchmark for the debate on the Termination of Pregnancy Bill, Malawi’s own path to an abortion law. This website first published a story on this on 13 December 2016, an indication that the Bill has not only come a long way but that it is far from being enacted without a good fight from both sides of the argument. The reignition of the public debate on the Bill continues to show that the sentiments on these two sides remain fresh lacerations that could easily turn the heat up if scratched. Having a religious leader as State President may just re-energize anti-abortion lobbyists to scratch these fresh wounds their way.

When we wrote about this in 2016, we made the point that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is never easy for a woman. And sometimes for a man. Take, for instance, a scenario where one’s wife has been impregnated in a “rob-and-rape” incident as we have seen to be on the rise in the country lately. Many men involved may accept to live with this unfortunate life-changing incident in support of their wife yet few, if any, will pledge to take care of the stepchild the rapist gifts them in the unfortunate incident. Not many will do even when faced with the strongest religious persuasion.

You can recast various permutations of unwanted pregnancy occurrences, many which would have resulted from two consenting adults. Some may affect clergymen and women. Take, for example, the 2012 scandal that caused a buzz in Malawi’s media where a Catholic priest at Euthini, Mzimba was allegedly caught performing a plumbing job on a married woman. Or the case of the 39-year-old priest who canoodled a 15-year-old in Zomba. Apologies to our Catholic friends for using priests as relevant examples, but it was quite the shock when a priest was caught at it with a nun in the parking lot of Kamuzu International Airport 16 years ago. True, we have anecdotally heard of CCAP reverends engaging in carnal relations with women’s guilds members; and (unproven) rumors of respectable Pentecostal leaders on romantic sprees continue to fan the flames of promiscuity within the wider body of Christ.

Now think of this, we hardly hear of pregnancies resulting from such relationships even when we prove them to be true. Where are these pregnancies disappearing to if and when they happen?

We persuade fellow Malawians that, when debating the Abortion Bill, think of anything but religious motivations for a stance against legalized abortion. If anything, the controversial position of the church – as above examples show (and Tim Murphy’s) – is a good reason not to meddle religion in the debate. Secondly, as we attempted to show in our 2016 article, Malawi’s laws are baselined on secular notions that safety and logic are what needs to be considered first.

On this basis, it’s important that we seriously reflect that our small country is a processing plant for about 70,000 pregnancy terminations every year. With a growing population, poverty and other vices like Covid-19-induced pregnancies, this number can only grow. What’s worse, of these women and girls, about 12,000 (or 17%) in Malawi die every year attempting to cut the life of an unwanted, unborn child. These astronomical numbers only reflect what can be captured by a statistician, leaving many of Malawi’s poor and remote people turning to local remedies that no institution would chance.

It’s our moral imperative to not lose another woman or girl because they couldn’t stomach a pregnancy through to full term. Given the right reasons, of which women considering terminating an unborn child almost always have, the law needs to protect them and the future of our nation. As a matter of fact, it must protect women from decisions being made for them (usually, to keep unwanted pregnancies) by men who will never be responsible for childcare and the quotidian difficulties that come with it in a nation’s development of human capital. Because it’s possible for women being forced to keep a child to produce something far from human capital. Those that have read Freakonomics will attest here to the correlations between anti-abortion and crime rates that follow when unwanted children grow with limited parental nurture.

Furthermore, our new law will put women and unfortunate girls at ease with how they manage their bodies when faced with a pregnancy. It will also allow the State and other stakeholders to intervene earlier for unfortunate girls who fall prey to rabid men, enabling them to terminate pregnancies earlier in their cycles, a much safer option than later. In fact, the age of the novel coronavirus has opened up newer opportunities for early term pregnancies to be terminated in a woman’s home if using a termination pill. Developed countries are able to accomplish this service by posting the pill to the woman’s doorstep, where the procedure can take place privately and preserve the woman’s dignity before society and her own significant others.

Finally, while ensuring to punish men who consciously impregnate without consent, and especially those who impregnate underage girls, the law needs to empower the woman and girl to have the last word in keeping or terminating a pregnancy. After all, when one observes the incidence of men encouraging abortions when it serves their interest, one can only imagine what kind of debate we would be having today if nature designed that men were instead the ones who carried a pregnancy.

Maybe even Mr. Murphy would have been a different kind of advocate.

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