So apparently some of our MPs thought it fit to harass the Population Services Zimbabwe (PSZ) director for providing women with post-abortion care, in a line of questioning that seemed to demonstrated firstly that the honourable MPs are not familiar with Zimbabwe’s law on abortion and Zimbabwe’s obligations to protect women’s reproductive health rights under international law. Secondly that we continue to be invested in the narrative of denying women’s rights to bodily autonomy due to privately held moral convictions that then frame women who seek out and procure abortions as somehow inherently evil.
Before the introduction of the Termination of Pregnancy act, the Roman-Dutch common law position was that abortion was only permissible in order the save a woman’s life. The act expanded the possible grounds for abortion to include not only risk to life but also risk to physical health of the women, where there is “foetal impairment” and where the pregnancy is a product of rape or incest. What is worrying about the provision on the rape exception is that it does not include instances of marital rape. It is unclear why legislators feel that being forced to have and raise the child of your rapist when the rapist happens to be your spouse should be any less traumatic as when you are raped by someone you are not married to? This double standard seems to be feeding out of the idea that by marrying, women are now under some sort of contractual obligation that then dictates that they may not choose how to go about reproducing because their bodies have now become public commodities. It’s the same sort of reasoning that underpinned the idea of perpetual consent in marriage. Now that we recognise that marital rape is a crime, it is time we provided married women with the same options that non married women would have in the event of the rape leading to pregnancy.
Our constitution claims that “unborn children” should have the right to life protected via an act of parliament under section 48 but the rights of women must be protected under section 81 and the right to healthcare under section 76 includes the right to reproductive healthcare. If this issue should ever be litigated it’ll be interesting to see how the judiciary navigates the constitutional obligation to void laws that infringe on the rights of women as granted in the constitution.
Women should have access to safe abortion. It is important to note that the grounds provided for legal abortion under the Act fall short of the minimum grounds set by the Maputo Protocol to which Zimbabwe is a signatory. Under article 14, which focuses on women’s reproductive health rights, States have an obligation to protect women’s reproductive health rights by ensuring that women have access to abortion in the event that carrying the pregnancy to term could endanger the woman’s mental health. This still falls short of complete legalisation of abortion in recognition of women’s rights to bodily autonomy and our rights to choose what we do with our bodies but the expanded grounds would allow more women to access the care that they need.
The state has also been failing to meet its obligations under the Termination of Pregnancy Act where pregnancy is the result of unlawful intercourse. In such circumstances, permission for an abortion must be granted by a magistrate who attests that the person seeking an abortion made a police report about the unlawful act.
Further this police report must indicate that the circumstances surrounding the case make it clear that the pregnancy in question may have arisen from the unlawful act. This requirement already excludes many women from potentially accessing a service they need as rape and incest are under reported and often swept under the rug. Further the Mildred Mapingure case demonstrated that within the medico-judicial system there is not only an alarming amount of ignorance about proper procedure according to the law, there is also wilful misdirection at play. Although the Mildred Mapingure case was a win in some respects, there are gaps in that ruling that are cause for concern including but not limited to the fact that the government and its employees are apparently not obliged to know the appropriate processes for the legal procurement of an abortion nor must they share the said information if they know it.
What this means is that even where technically the state has an obligation to provide women with access to a safe abortion it has permitted itself to not do so. There is clearly a lack of urgency in the recognition of women’s reproductive health rights and the push for reproductive health justice. We are content to regulate women’s bodies and choices in yet another demonstration of patriarchy’s infantilisation of women coupled with entitlement to women’s bodies. Our bodies are not yet our own.
A comment that I found particularly alarming was the one said to have been made by Paul Chimedza, who if he really is a medical doctor presumably took what I call the ‘Hippocratic oath’. According to him part of the problem with the law as it stands and the provision by PSZ of post abortion services is that through providing life saving care for these persons, it might appear to legitimise legal abortions.
Following this reasoning through to its logical conclusion, women and other persons who procure abortions should be permitted to die or otherwise suffer in order to prove a certain point. The state is supposed to act for all its citizens, it is unclear why the individual moral predilections of certain MPs or civil servants should hold more weight than the need to recognise the basic human rights of women. Legalising abortion and ensuring access to safe abortion does not create an obligation on anyone to get one. It allows those who need one to be able to get one safely, without stigma or fear of legal consequences.
Zimbabwe needs to begin to throw its weight behind proper reproductive justice. We need to desist from arguing from a moral point of view. Governing bodies that are not ours will only infringe on the rights of the individuals in question, who in this case are women. Let women own their bodies.
Main image taken from www.theconmag.co.za