‘Abortion on demand’ in Namibia has been ignorantly and harmfully connotated as the moral decay of a nation in that individuals who seek this essential health service (on demand), do so because they are irreligious, reckless and uncouth and not because it is a fundamental right and is just another normal reproductive healthcare procedure, which many people overlook with gay abandon. Some have gone as far as calling it premeditated murder, whilst others accuse individuals who seek this health care service of casting a ‘curse’ on the nation (using biblical overtones), as if choosing to terminate a pregnancy at one’s own volition will suddenly compromise the image of Namibia to all the many deities supposedly keeping score on the nation’s puritanical history.
The history of the current ‘Abortion and Sterilization Act No.2 of 1975’ cannot be understated, as it has already been established that this restrictive law was inherited 47 years ago from the apartheid administration which had colonised Namibia. Without veering from this historical and incontrovertible fact, it is important to enumerate that there are at least 30 countries across the world with similar restrictive conditions as Namibia’s Act, which only permit abortions to presumably preserve the health of an individual seeking a safe, legal abortion. In these countries (with the majority being in Africa), it is permitted only as far as mental health is concerned in some cases, or may include cases of rape, incest, fetal impairment or where parental authorisation/notification is required. For Namibia, it is all the conditions listed under which an individual may obtain a safe, legal abortion, anything outside of this scope is criminalised and may result in five years imprisonment, a N$5 000 fee or both.
In light of the above, less than five countries in Africa permit abortion on demand or on request with gestational and regulatory limits that vary. Gestational limits are calculated from the first day of the last menstrual period, which is considered to occur 2 weeks prior to conception. Where laws specify that gestational age limits are calculated from the date of conception, these limits have been extended by 2 weeks. In South Africa, for example, the gestational limit is 12 weeks. For context, ‘South Africa legalized abortion in 1996, through the Choice in Termination of Pregnancy Act, which gives women, regardless of age or marital status, the right to access abortion services within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The Act can also extend access to 20 weeks of pregnancy in specific cases. The Act served as one of the most liberal examples of abortion legislation globally’, according to a safe abortion Desk Research conducted in January 2021.
The Desk Research further highlights that South Africa conducted a national study on the epidemiology of incomplete abortions in 1994 and that the study brought to light the scale of the problem of unsafe abortion and repealed the 1975 Abortion and Sterilization Act.
The Act restricted access to abortion services by requiring approval for the procedure from a physician, and in some cases a court magistrate. “The law’s passage was a crucial advancement for women, as it represented the recognition of reproductive rights. Since the enactment of the Choice in Termination of Pregnancy Act in 1996, there has been a significant decrease in morbidity for women in South Africa who have undergone unsafe abortions, especially younger women. The number of women presenting for treatment of severe complications resulting from incomplete abortions decreased significantly,” the study highlighted.
Similar to South Africa, a landmark case study in Romania showed that the lifting of the abortion ban in 1989 resulted in a 50% decline in maternal mortality in less than a year. In fact, time and again, it has been proven that ‘the law does not prevent abortion, what it does do is restrict access to safe and legal abortion for women with the least resources. These are women and girls who are in the most vulnerable positions in society, often living in poverty and in rural settings, and are Black, uneducated, adolescent, and survivors and victims of sexual violence.’ In other words, South Africa, Romania and over 20 countries globally recognise(d) and appreciate a crucial and undeniable truth, which perhaps can be considered as a principle that may apply virtually in every facet of life: once there are severe restrictions enforced (never mind that they may be reasonable at times), people will always seek out the easiest way to circumvent these restrictions (notwithstanding the fact that it may result in fatalities. Deaths which could have been prevented in the majority of these cases in the context of the abortion law).
Recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued new guidelines on abortion to help countries deliver life-saving care. Alongside the clinical and service delivery recommendations, the guidelines recommend removing medically unnecessary policy barriers to safe abortion, such as criminalisation, mandatory waiting times, the requirement that approval must be given by other people (e.g., partners or family members) or institutions, and limits on when during pregnancy an abortion can take place, the publication on the new guidelines read.
It may seem like Namibia may not be ready to repeal this restrictive law due to moral and religious sentiments, and arguments on the availability of resources have been flagged too. But if we are not ready to remove barriers for on demand abortions to finally be accessible, then it means we have prepared our country well enough to withstand the health, human and economic costs which a restrictive law implicates. By the looks of things, we will continue to ‘plan to fail’ at an astronomical and catastrophic scale. Abortion must be legalised on demand, not because we do not value life, or have renounced our faith, but because we value our lives and our faith as an example and demonstration of our rights to choice and to freedom.