South Africa’s Continuous Struggle for Safe and Accessible Abortion

Date: 10 November 2023

Opinion Piece By: Noma-Afrika Wakashe

South Africa’s Continuous Struggle for Safe and Accessible Abortion

The South African government introduced the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act 96 of 1996 (‘the Act’), effective from February 1, 1997. The primary objective was to replace the restrictive and inaccessible provisions of the Abortion and Sterilization Act 2 of 1975, and to extend reproductive health rights and the freedom of choice by granting every woman the right to choose whether to have an early, safe, and legal termination of pregnancy according to their individual beliefs.

Despite the progressive legislation, the Commission for Gender Equality continues to receive reports of women dying due to complications related to unsafe abortions. During a recent inspection visit to a hospital in the Eastern Cape, the Commission observed that the hospital had a high rate of maternal deaths, the majority of which stem from unsafe abortions. The hospital highlighted the concern that no action is taken to hold those responsible for unsafe abortion services and facilities accountable. This is merely an example of many other maternal deaths recorded across the county.

Lack of implementation of the CTOP Act by the authorities exacerbates the situation particular at the rural remote areas. Section 2 of the Act clearly outlines the conditions and circumstances under which termination of pregnancy may be performed and section 3 specifies the authorized places for the procedure. However, lack of accessibility continues to exclude the poor and marginalized from accessing these essential services.

Notwithstanding the legal framework, illegal abortion advertisements still appear in the streets, with no one being held accountable for these unlawful practices. Posters boldly promote illegal abortions, casting a shadow over the pursuit of safe and accessible options. There is also a concerning absence of investigations into these operations, allowing a systemic and organized continuity with impunity.

The challenges lie not only in the lack of enforcement, but also in insufficient awareness campaigns and the long-standing stigmas attached to abortions. Misunderstandings persist about abortion being a fundamental component of an individual’s reproductive health right.

Addressing this problem requires a comprehensive approach. To begin, the government as lead needs to work with community-based stakeholders to bolster awareness campaigns that educate the public about legal, safe, and accessible options for the termination of pregnancy. Moreover, reducing the stigma surrounding abortion is crucial. It should be seen as a choice made in accordance with one’s own beliefs and free from judgment.

In conclusion, it’s imperative for the South African government to take immediate steps to ensure the effective implementation of the Act. This includes not only enforcing the law but also combating stigma and enhancing public awareness to protect the reproductive rights and health of women across the nation. The Department of Health and SAPS as key stakeholders must work together in this endeavour to curb unsafe abortions, save lives, and hold accountable those who advertise and perform illegal abortions in public spaces.

Noma-Afrika Wakashe is a Legal Officer at the CGE