The South African Health Department released some encouraging, but not necessarily surprising, statistics on Thursday: since 1997, when abortion was legalized under broad circumstances in South Africa, deaths from unsafe abortion have gone down an encouraging 91.1 percent. It’s a fitting reminder that making abortion illegal doesn’t make it stop, it just makes it unsafe. The South African Health Department should send the study to Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who have all signed or pledged to sign bills that would all but outlaw safe and legal abortion in their states.
South Africa and Tunisia are the only two countries in Africa where legal abortion is widely available. In most other countries in Africa, it is legal under narrow circumstances—for example, when the pregnancy puts the woman's life at risk, or in some cases, when the pregnancy threatens her health, although even under those circumstances, women often have difficulty accessing safe and legal services. It's a similar situation in Latin America, where most countries have highly restrictive abortion laws (with recent notable exceptions). Talk to physicians from Africa and Latin America and they will tell you—if you sit in the emergency room of a country where abortion is illegal, you will encounter a steady stream of women seeking treatment for complications from unsafe, illegal abortions—just like you would have in the United States before Roe v. Wade was passed in 1973.
Because humanity has not yet managed to do away with unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortion is still a reality for women worldwide—the WHO reports that 19 million women risk unsafe, unskilled procedures every year, and 68,000 women—99 percent from developing countries—don’t survive the experience. This has nothing to do with abortion laws: abortion is less common in the United States, where it’s legal, than in Latin America, where it’s generally illegal. And it’s even less common in countries like Sweden and the Netherlands, where abortion laws are more liberal but where people also have access to comprehensive sexuality education and affordable contraception, including emergency contraception.
If those laws and access to EC have resulted in some of the lowest abortion rates in the world, why aren’t American anti-abortion activists picketing the FDA and the pharmacists across America who are denying women access to emergency contraception and regular old birth control pills? Or why aren’t they lobbying for comprehensive sexuality education, access to affordable contraception, universal health care, and free, quality childcare? If abortion were the real issue, that’s what they’d be doing, because those are the factors proven to reduce abortion rates.
In its coverage of the Health Department report, the South African Press Association recounted the following story from South Africa’s illegal abortion days:
A young girl falls pregnant and hides the fact from her parents, fearing their opprobrium. She visits a back-street abortionist, where an unsterile knitting needle is inserted into her vagina. Days later she is admitted to hospital for severe sepsis of the uterus. The teenager will never bear children again. She is one of the lucky ones.
How long will we have to wait until stories like this are showing up in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Rapid City Journal, and the Jackson Clarion-Ledger? And what will the people who call themselves “pro-life” say then?