Some religious leaders have risen against plans by the Health Committee of Parliament to table the Termination of Abortion Bill in the current sitting, but the Reverend Cliff Nyekanyeka of the CCAP Blantyre Synod tells our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA why “we need some honesty” when dealing with sticky issues.
How do you understand the current abortion law reform?
I know that Sections 149 to 151 of the Penal Code criminalise abortion in Malawi unless the pregnancy poses a death threat to the mother. The rationale is to save the life of the mother as she is one known to be human with responsibilities than the foetus which may depend on the same woman for its survival. Thus the current law gives one ground for legal and safe abortion.
The proposed Bill still criminalises abortion but proposes three more grounds based on nationwide consultations done by the Special Law Commission empanelled to review abortion laws and make recommendations. These grounds are [a] when the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest and defilement; [b] when the foetus is severely malformed to survive; and [when] to prevent physical or mental injury of the pregnant woman.
What do you make of these recommendations?
I know that although these grounds are being proposed, they are not going to be forced on any woman to terminate a pregnancy. Rather, the decision and consent shall always be paramount.
Are religious leaders justified to criticise plans to table the Bill proposed by a special commission in which they were represented?
I have read the Law Commission report on the review of termination of pregnancy laws. The first thing that I have noticed is that the commission included representatives from Malawi Council of Churches, Episcopal Conference of Malawi and Muslim Association of Malawi. The representatives of these religious mother bodies did not just participate in the consultations but also signed the report that their nominating bodies are in agreement with contents of the report, including the proposed new grounds for safe abortion.
As such, I find it difficult to understand why the same religious bodies are making contrary statements today when the bill is about to be tabled.
Should these faith groups really be making their stand now as they are doing?
Some groups are claiming that they were not consulted and others are saying they were not part of the commission that released the report. I believe the special commission was representative and would not have include every denomination but the mother bodies to which they subscribe. I also understand that during district and regional consultations, the commission invited all stakeholders and a cross-section of religious leaders attended the meetings to have their say based on their teachings. Therefore, I find it difficult to understand why someone would claim to have not been consulted.
What is supposed to be the role of the church in lawmaking?
There are four models of church-State relationship and each shows the role the faith community should play in matters of lawmaking. These models are, the church and the State are at par, the church is above the State, the State is above the church and the church and State are not related. Where the two are equal, there is always collaboration in lawmaking processes and the State will always consult the church to contribute based on their distinctive obligations. Where the church is above the State, the state is governed by religious rules. In the context where the State is mightier, the church is governed by State rules. Where the State and the church are not related, each is governed by its rules based on its obligations outlined in scriptures and the State Constitution. In this case, the State will fulfill its constitutional obligation of providing all the basic needs to the populace while the church undertakes to teach its flock matters of faith and doctrine as outlined in the Holy books. All these are clearly stipulated in the Constitution which remains supreme in case of any tension between the church and the State. I understand that Malawi is a secular State. It’s neither Islamic nor Christian although most people say it’s a God-fearing nation. I call upon all faith groups to start lobbying for making Malawi a religious Nation, so that these issues we are grappling with today should no longer be an issue.
Why should religious groups be concerned about unsafe abortion?
Issues of unsafe abortion should be a big concern to every Malawian, including faith leaders. As faith leaders we handle counselling sessions with members of our denominations and some issues affecting our client’s border on trauma resulting from forced pregnancies, such as in rape, incest, extortion and subsequent unsafe abortions. Sometimes, we conduct burial services for victims of unsafe abortions who could have lived if they were given a listening ear for their circumstances. The problem so far is that we only conclude that those who procure abortions are murderers without looking into the circumstances that forced them to procured the procedure. It’s unfortunate that some respectable men in the society are the same men involved in incest, rape, extortion and intergenerational sexual activities which force girls and women to terminate pregnancies clandestinely and some die while the respectable fellers are busy impregnating more girls and sponsoring the abortions they denounce publicly. We need some honesty in dealing with the issue.