Monday 21 November 2011

Myth Busting Monday: ‘Where abortion is legal, all women will be able to access safe, legal abortions'

This week The Guardian has published some interesting short articles on unsafe abortion in Zambia, written by Alice Klein, a young mother who has recently had an abortion herself.

Klein writes about the places women in Zambia can access illegal abortions for varying sums of money: an unhygienic Chinese clinic, drug stores selling misoprostol illegally, and ‘witch doctors’ offering herbal ‘medications’. There are also horrifying stories of women attempting to end pregnancies themselves; ‘inserting knitting needles and turkey basters into their vaginas, [to] drinking laundry bleach and jumping off stairs on to their stomachs’.

You’d be forgiven for taking from this that abortion is outlawed in Zambia, but another article reveals that this is not the case. In fact, Zambian ‘abortion law is one of the most liberal in sub-Saharan Africa and allows the procedure if the pregnancy risks the mother's physical or mental wellbeing’. However access to legal abortion is affected by a number of barriers: ‘it requires three doctors' signatures, almost impossible in a country with one doctor per 8,333 people (compared with one doctor per 435 people in the UK)’; also, in a country with an 80% poverty rate, costs of safe, clinical procedures can be prohibitive. The article also highlights the widespread stigma and religious objection to abortion in Zambia, which again, contributes to misinformation about available services, further reducing accessibility. One ‘healer’ offering illegal, herbal abortions advises the researcher to ‘avoid hospital abortions, saying metal clamps are used to open the vagina and scratchy cotton wool used to clean the womb. She repeated common myths, such as clinical abortions leave women infertile and unclean.’

Clearly, in Zambia, although abortion is effectively legal, this doesn’t mean it is accessible to all women who want to end their pregnancies. As a result, women undergoing illegal, unsafe abortions are risking their health, and in some cases, lives.

Of course, this is one example – there are many areas of the world where, although abortion is technically legal it is difficult (and generally for poorer, or younger women, virtually impossible) to access. Abortion has been legal in the U.S since 1973 but 88% of all U.S counties have no abortion provider (this rises to 97% in rural areas).

For more information on abortion worldwide, including the gaps between legality and accessibility, visit the Guttmacher Institute website.

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