A lawmaker determined to present the proposed termination of pregnancy law in Parliament wants his colleagues to “vote with a free conscience” as women keep dying due to a colonial legacy.
Chiradzulu West legislator Mathews Ngwale heads the Parliamentary Committee on Health, which toured hospitals where health workers find sticks, roots, wires and herbs in wombs of women who clandestinely terminate pregnancy.
He rallies fellow legislators to support the committee’s push to expand exceptions to the current laws, which only permit abortion when a woman’s life is in danger, to reduce the burden of backstreet abortions.
“We want to address one of the problems facing our country—the death of women and girls because the current laws force them to terminate pregnancies outside the health system,” he says.
Ngwale, a former lecturer at Kamuzu College of Nursing—a constituent college of the University of Malawi—will table a private member’s bill for Parliament to debate the Law Commission recommendations published in 2015.
If passed into law, health workers will have the liberty to terminate a pregnancy when it threatens a woman’s life; her physical and mental health; the foetus is severely malformed and it results from rape, defilement or incest.
But some religious groups say the new grounds attempt to legalise “a culture of death”.
Father Henry Saindi, spokesperson of the national conference of Catholic Bishops in Malawi said: “I know they are trying to coin some phrases such as safe abortion, but what we are saying is that abortion is abortion. Regardless of how life came about, life is sacred…We say no to whatever is being proposed”.
Ngwale says religious groups have a right to express their views, but relaxing abortion laws will reduce deaths, injuries and disabilities from backstreet abortions.
“If our laws allowed safe abortion, most of those dying from complications of clandestine abortion would be alive. We are saying this must change,” he explains.
In 2012, the government appointed special law commissioners to review abortion laws. Apart from lawyers and healthcare experts, the commission included Catholic Church envoy Father Denis Komwa, Malawi Council of Churches’ Bishop Gilford Matonga and Muslim Association of Malawi’s Imran Sheriff Saidi as well as Senior Chief Kapeni of Blantyre.
Mike Chinoko, deputy law reform officer at the Law Commission, put the process in context: “Our mandate includes reviewing laws to reflect existing challenges. The nationwide consultations showed that abortion is happening and women are dying, so we needed a solution.
“The commissioners were carefully selected so that everyone who has an opinion is heard and the outcome is that most were against legalising abortion on demand, so the commission proposed new grounds for safe termination of pregnancy. They all signed.”
The law reform stagnated in 2015 when some faith groups marched against taking it to Parliament.
Ngwale says the problem the Ministry of Health wanted tackled has not vanished.
The 2015 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey ranks unsafe abortion the country’s fourth largest killer of pregnant women—claiming 18 lives in every 100 maternal deaths.
Ngwale says: “Nobody should say we are introducing new laws; the law is already there, but maternal deaths remain high. We want to include new grounds.”
“The commission tasked by the Ministry of Health to look at why women were dying came up with recommendations to ensure that those who want abortion should do it safely.”
Emma Kaliya, leader of the Coalition for Prevention of Unsafe Abortion (Copua), urges lawmakers to look at the well-being of the woman instead of debating the morality of abortion.
She states: “The journey has been long and it has taken us 10 years discussing this Bill over and over again, with some fearing that they may lose votes. As a woman in Malawi, I ask myself: why do we go so slow when it’s about protecting women?
“Women cannot continue suffering and dying due to laws that push them to terminate pregnancies clandestinely in hazardous circumstances. Women can’t continue being treated as second-class citizens.”
In 2009, a study by the Ministry of Health showed two third of clandestine abortions occur in rural areas where private clinics that offer the procedure at a fee are almost nonexistent.
“This means you are safer if you live in town and you are not poor. You can just walk into a private pharmacy or clinic and safely terminate pregnancy without anyone knowing,” says Dr Henry Nyaka, vice-chairperson of Copua.
Inkosi Mabulabo of Mzimba says rural women and girls cannot continue “bearing the pain alone” while their urban peers are procuring safe abortion despite the restrictive laws.
Chief tired of lies
The Ngoni senior chief states: “It is depressing that most people dying are rural women and girls. To them, the law reform underway is a matter of great importance and they want this law passed as a matter of urgency despite some resistance.
“As traditional leaders, we are tired of churning out lies every time we bury women dying from clandestine abortion which is preventable. Parliament must play its role.”