This we know: Outlawing abortion -- or simply making it more difficult to get -- does not make it go away; it makes abortion unsafe. Fortunately, the opposite is also true, all the more demonstrably so based on data from South Africa recently reported by the reproductive rights group Ipas. According to Ipas, when South Africa broadly legalized abortion in 1996, deaths from unsafe procedures dropped. Plummeted, really. By a factor of 91 percent.
"Deaths and injuries from unsafe abortions are largely preventable. This has been shown very dramatically in South Africa," Ipas president Elizabeth Maguire said at a recent conference in Johannesburg. "South Africa stands as a great success story and clearly leads the region in advancing women's reproductive health and rights."
Before passage of the 1996 Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act (PDF) in 1996, access to abortion was highly restricted, especially for black and Coloured women who could not afford a private practitioner. Many resorted desperately to unqualified practitioners or, more desperately, to knitting needles. Since 1996, however, the law has granted all women the right to abortion through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and, under certain circumstances, through 20 weeks.
Still, the 1996 law is seen as only one step of many toward full reproductive freedom. As Ipas points out, a "liberal" abortion law -- and this one's not even that liberal -- "does not guarantee that all women are equally able to exercise their reproductive rights." In 2004, for one thing, the CTOP Act was amended to expand access by adding more types of providers (such as registered nurses) who could be trained in abortion care. And now, Ipas says, more subtle -- yet far-reaching -- cultural changes still need to take place. In many areas of the country, for example, the remaining taboo against abortion causes women to delay the procedure into the riskier second trimester. That, and improved access to contraception services, could obviously help reduce the need for abortion in the first place.
South Africa is, of course, only one piece of the puzzle. Reportedly, 4.2 million unsafe abortions are performed each year on the African continent, resulting in 30,000 related deaths. According to Maguire, though, several other countries are now beginning to reform or expand their laws concerning access to abortion. Given the dramatic results in South Africa, it's not a moment too soon.