Anti-abortion laws are a war waged on women and girls living in poverty
Criminalizing abortion does not eradicate it nor does it make it rare. It makes it dangerous and often deadly for the poorest, most vulnerable people who can get pregnant.~ Mona Ethaway
It was 5 am on a cold morning, in 2008. I was on school holiday. My mother, a devout Christian, had woken me up to pray for a productive day; a ritual she maintains to date. After prayers, we would head out to serve tea to our morning customers at her grocery shop in the old Mpanga Market in Fort Portal town.
I often dozed off throughout the prayers and today was no different. Except for a sudden loud knock on my mother’s bedroom window. It was my Aunt. She did not even wait for us to open the window or make it to the door before she announced, to no one in particular, that her daughter had died. She then left as fast she had come.
I remember my mother remaining on her knees for a few more minutes, as if unsure whether to continue praying, or chase after her sister. She finally chose the latter, walking bare feet for several meters from home, before realizing my aunt was long gone. I was unsure of what I could do to help, as my mum called to break the news to the rest of the family, while also trying to find her sister and working on the burial arrangements. We would later learn that the cause of death of my 16-year-old cousin was an unsafe abortion. She had bled to death on the way to the hospital.
The funeral was quick and rushed; on the same day, amidst heavy rains. No one spoke of the cause of her death. I felt like we were not allowed to grieve – as if we were not to mourn my cousin. The unspoken, unresolved grief would send my aunt on a painful road to her own grave 7 years later. I carry both of their deaths with me; a reminder of why we must insist on women maintaining bodily autonomy.
The legislative price of poverty
Uganda’s laws only permit abortion to save the life of mother. This constitution and the penal code act create offenses and punishment for what is termed as: “killing an unborn child”. In 2006, there was a glimmer of progress through the Uganda 2006 National Policy Guidelines and Service Standards for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR).
These policies expanded the permissions for abortion under certain circumstances to include severe maternal illness, fetal abnormalities, rape, defilement, and incest. They also provided an exception for where a woman is HIV-positive and requests it under severe maternal illness, or where she has cancer of the cervix. These were followed by Guidelines on Reducing Maternal Morbidity and Mortality from unsafe abortion, as developed by the Ministry of Health in 2015.
However, none of this has tangibly translated into the protection of women’s lives. Women who each day add to the statistics of maternal mortality due to unsafe abortion. In fact, the same guidelines were later stayed from implementation.
Anti-abortion laws stem from an assumed patriarchal role to indiscriminately control women’s bodies, but poor girls and women bear the brunt thereof.
A girl who was raped in exchange for sanitary towels or 1000 shillings to buy a chapati for her school lunch. Sometimes it is a teenager whose father has married off to a 50-year-old man. It is rarely, if ever, an International school student standing next to her parents’ luxury automobile.
At a meeting on sexual reproductive health and rights, a Member of Parliament shared the panel with a 17-year-old mother of triplets from Eastern Uganda whose experience is the subject of a documentary on the teenage pregnancy crisis.
This was one of the MP’s submissions: “show your children nice things. Take her to Serena (hotel), so a man does not confuse her”, she advised.
What that legislator and many others fail to acknowledge is the systemic failures whose one of many consequences is a scenario in which a 17-year-old girl is a mother of three.
The legislator’s claim that all parents need to do is show their children luxury is also untrue. Children of semi-middle and middle class Ugandans get pregnant early too. The difference is that they have access to the money it requires to discreetly have safe abortions at clinics with trained medical personnel.
Selective-sanctity of life
Criminalization of abortion in this country even extends to arrests or prosecution of health care personnel who provide post-abortion care services. As a result, about 1500 girls to die every year due to unsafe abortion according to the 2016, Uganda Demographic and Health Survey Key Indicators Report. Yet when asked to defend their argument, groups opposed to abortion claim protection of life as their cause. We can be certain that it is not the lives of any of those 1500 girls they are talking about.
Statistics from the Ministry of Gender indicate that of the 1,682 defilement cases reported through helpline services only last year, 200 were fathers who had sexually abused their daughters. These are merely the tip of the iceberg for the number of women and girls who are pregnant as a result of the heightened sexual violence in two years of the pandemic. A crisis that the government has still yet to avert.
These women and girls who have been sexually violated or exploited must now either mother children of their abusers, or be condemned to death from the complications of unsafe abortions. But should they survive, the State is waiting on the other side to prosecute them. The sanctity of life, as it appears, does not extend to the life of a girl or woman — Lorde help her if she is poor.