Health minister urges abortion debate

28 March 2017 | Health

JANA-MARI SMITH

Health minister Bernhard Haufiku says the time has come to renew the debate on decriminalising abortion after more than 7 100 women were treated at state hospitals last year for complications arising from suspected illegal abortions.

The minister said 7 335 abortions were recorded at health facilities, of which only 138 were legally performed on medical grounds.

The minister said the vast majority of the abortions were back-street abortions, and these numbers indicated that a fresh debate was urgently needed.

“I am reporting it here because obviously this is a major concern as unsafe abortions pose a major risk to women’s physical and mental health. We need an honest and thorough national reflection on the reasons why so many women risk their lives by [getting] unsafe abortions in a country where contraceptives are widely available.

“Most importantly, we need to ask ourselves whether it is not time to relook at the legislation and decriminalise abortion. The facts speak for themselves.”

Doctors confirmed yesterday that at least three women had died from botched abortions since 2015, and that many more were treated for serious complications following illegal backstreet abortions.

Haufiku said a wider debate on the issue was crucial.

Doctors pointed out that many of the more than 7 100 abortions recorded could have been miscarriages with natural causes.

Still, Haufiku emphasised that the numbers were a red flag showing that the situation was “completely out of control”.

The majority of women who attempt illegal abortions in Namibia are under the age of 25, and many are in their teens, doctors said. Complications from illegal abortions are numerous and could lead to lifelong health complications, infertility and death.

In Namibia, baby dumping regularly makes headlines and some experts feel that it results partly from the limited reproductive rights Namibian women enjoy.

Haufiku warned that the actual number of illegal abortions was probably much higher than official records indicate.

“It is suspected this is only the tip of the iceberg as it is common knowledge that most abortions are done in secret. Often an abortion will only be presented to health facilities when it is incomplete or if the woman develops complications.”

He said in many cases women only reported to a hospital when they were already “very, very sick”.

“We tend to brand [women who have abortions] as the naughty ones. But there are a lot of reasons why people terminate pregnancies. And these are the issues I want us to debate as a country. Not only debate, but come up with possible solutions,” the minister said.

Doctors say between six and ten women are admitted to the Windhoek Central and Katutura state hospitals daily, presenting with complications from spontaneous miscarriages.

Dr David Uriab, the chief medical supervisor at the Windhoek Central Hospital, said: “How do you prove it is a backstreet abortion? It would not make sense to report everyone [to the police] coming in with a bleeding. Obviously the majority will claim that this happened spontaneously, or through an infection or an accident.”

Dr Shonag McKenzie, head of the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at the Windhoek Central Hospital, said medical staff are trained and equipped to treat miscarriages in order to reduce the risk of complications.

They also offer long-acting contraceptive options to patients, particularly very young women.

In addition, mothers are referred to social workers to help them plan their pregnancies and to help them cope psychologically and socially.

“A lot of these are unplanned pregnancies,” McKenzie said, adding that the hospital focuses on providing long-term assistance.

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