Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights

RIGHTS-SWAZILAND: Abortion Remains a Controversial Issue

James Hall

MBABANE, Dec 9 2003 (IPS) - After banning abortion in the country, but then leaving an option for its eventual legalisation, the new draft constitution typifies the ambiguous feeling most Swazis have toward the procedure.

?Swazis hate abortion, the taking of little Swazi lives. We are a small, proud nation, and perhaps we are more sensitive to the preciousness of those Swazis we have, particularly in the age of AIDS, which is now taking so many of our people,? said nurse Abigail Dube, of the central town Manzini.

But Dube admits that there are those in the medical profession, and amongst the public at large, who concede a need for abortion in some circumstances.

?It?s a dilemma. There?s a natural repugnance toward the murder of an unborn baby ? which is how most Swazis see abortion from the conversations I?ve had with patients and pregnant women ? but there is also compassion for an incest victim or a woman who has been raped,? Dube said.

Swazi tradition has created conditions where women have been forced into sexual intercourse and the bearing of children when they might not have been psychologically prepared. But Swazi traditionalists said this was done for the good of the family, and in a social context far removed from rape.

?When a husband dies, his widow becomes the ?wife? of the man?s brother, who will have children by her. She may still be grieving her husband, and she may not like the brother, but she goes along, because a woman?s function is to bear children so the family will survive,? said Titus Mngomezulu, a statistician who is a compiler of Swazi Law and Custom.

Until recently, a combination of a low life span for the typical Swazi, and a high infant mortality rate, had to be balanced by a high birth rate. Polygamy existed to expand a population of less than 100,000 a century ago to nearly ten times that number today.

Polygamy is legal in the new draft constitution, although its role to ensure procreation has passed. Swaziland has one of the world?s highest birthrates, at 2.7 percent annually, even though overpopulation woes have wrought social, environmental and economic misery to a country where two-thirds of the people live in chronic poverty, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Abortion is unlikely to be seen as a tool to curb population growth any time soon, according to the draft constitution. Under Chapter IV, ?Protection and Promotion of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms,? section 16, clause 5 states, ?Abortion is unlawful.?

However, the word ?unlawful? is followed by the qualifying word ?except . . . ?

The exceptions then listed permit abortion ?on medical or therapeutic grounds including where a doctor certifies that continued pregnancy will endanger the life or constitute a serious threat to the physical health of the woman ? where continued pregnancy will constitute a serious threat to the mental health of a woman, or there is serious risk that the child will suffer from physical or mental defect of such a nature that the child will be irreparably seriously handicapped.?

A final exception, which has drawn fire from the International Bar Association (IBA) and local health groups, states: ?(an abortion may be permitted) where the pregnancy resulted from rape, incest or sexual intercourse with a female idiot or imbecile.?

A panel of constitutional experts assembled by the IBA to assess the draft constitution objected to the final exception. It belittled physically disabled people by using antique pejoratives like ?idiot? and ?imbecile?, which the panel said was inconsistent with a constitution that elsewhere seeks to ensure the dignity of disabled people.

?The clause smacks of a policy of eugenics,? the panel noted.

In terms of social change, however, the draft constitution?s listing of exceptions to the abortion ban was seen as progressive by the Swaziland National Association of Nurses and other groups.

Also noteworthy was the final sentence in the draft constitution?s section devoted to abortion, which says the procedure may be permitted ?on such other grounds as Parliament may prescribe.?

?What this is saying is that parliament may not outright legalise abortion without changing the constitution, but may permit any number of ways a woman might obtain an abortion, chipping away at the total ban until it is meaningless,? a source with the Swaziland Law Society told IPS.

Swaziland?s House of Assembly, consisting of 55 elected MPs and 10 MPs appointed by King Mswati, is unlikely to divert from the Swazi people?s current distaste of abortion. Media reports this year of illegal abortions gone wrong depict the procedure as attempted murder. Two nurses who assisted in illegal abortions were arrested, and their stories in the press characterised them as alleged accessories in murder.

?And yet, there is resentment that if you have money, or you are well connected, you can simply go across the border to South Africa, where abortion is legal, and have it done there,? said Abby Simelane, a bank teller in the capital Mbabane.

?Poor girls whose boyfriends abandon them still die on kitchen tables,? she said.

Noting that abortions tend to be sought by poor Swazi women and girls who cannot support a child, family planning groups have submitted that the way to eliminate the need for abortions is by ensuring each mother is given the material and social support she needs.

?Boyfriends have to assume responsibility. If they don?t, and their pregnant girlfriends get abortions, it is the impregnator who is also an accessory,? said Simelane.

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