In 2014, I had a first-hand experience with the stigma women face when seeking help from the government sector in South Africa. I had been rushed into the local hospital in Mitchell’s Plain with severe pain in the pelvic area. The response I got from doctors traumatised me. They immediately assumed I had botched an abortion and stigmatised me for it.

The Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act

This Women’s Month ushered in 21 years since the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act (CTOPA) was implemented; this Act along with the South African Constitution protects the rights of autonomy and freedom regarding access to abortions. South African women are still unaware as to their right to terminate, while healthcare professionals continue to stigmatise abortions.

The CTOPA dictates that people are able to terminate their pregnancies – no questions asked – until the 12th week, and under certain circumstances up until the 20th week. Many of us are unaware of our constitutional rights as women and are met with ethically corrupt healthcare providers who refuse to do what they have taken an oath to do: help people in need of healthcare.

Stigma in the public sector

Between 2010 and 2014, only one in every four abortions in Africa was considered to be safe under the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines for a safe abortion, states Guttmacher Institute. Needless to say, the poorer women are, the more the odds are stacked against them due to various barriers and inaccessibility. The general population of South Africa cannot take a day off from work to sit and wait, only to be sent away until the next day for a procedure that should not take long.

In my personal experience as someone who is reliant on the public sector for healthcare, even going to the clinic for my choice of contraception is traumatic. Between the remarks of healthcare professionals, accusatory tones and verbal abuse, it is no wonder many of us feel unsafe. Nurses and doctors alike stigmatise young girls for requesting contraception and for having sex: the reaction towards abortions are violent to say the least – these reactions are often perpetuated in the form of denying the service, demanding women come back after rethinking their choice, or demanding they use a different door at clinics when seeking termination services.

Due to the above, many South African women and girls choose illegal abortions operated by unskilled people, which have the potential to result in complications including infections, haemorrhages, infertility, disability and even death. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a startling 9% of maternal deaths in Africa are due to unsafe abortions. Women and girls are forced into these dire situations for many reasons, including fear and the inaccessibility of safe termination of pregnancy (TOP) services.

Addressing abortion myths

These statistics and revelations strongly show why a protest like Total Shutdown across South Africa is urgent. We simply cannot afford to remain quiet and complacent.

Renowned OB/GYN Dr Willie Parker states that ‘abortions are seven times safer than a colonoscopy and … take less than five minutes.’ Bizarrely, many of us have violently inaccurate depictions of abortions in our minds due to propaganda. In reality, the Global Health Strategies suggests that ‘TOP procedures are safer than childbirth’ and yet women in South Africa continue to have potentially life-threatening procedures done to avoid stigma and accusations.

Know your right to choose

Within the medical profession, healthcare providers are often strategically out of reproductive commodities when it comes to medical supplies for abortions, a scenario that seemingly never occurs in terms of male circumcision, which is even advertised on television and at the clinics. Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, a visionary in women’s health and a reproductive justice advocate states that ‘the healthcare system systemically fails women on many levels.’ Due to these aforementioned failures, Heard.org states that ‘50% of abortions within South Africa continue to occur outside of designated health facilities.’

It is clear to see that while laws are important, without the information, accessibility and a fire for ethical treatment of women’s reproductive health, we are stuck in the mud as South Africans and, more importantly, as women.

We need to start having important conversations regarding our rights as women. The rights we as South African women have fought seemingly endless fights for: our right to bodily autonomy, our right to choose and our Constitutional Right to abortions and freedom of choice in South Africa.

Words: Nadine Dirks