December 02, 2020

Committee anger at ‘bullying’ over abortion amendments

A meeting of Parliament’s Health Portfolio Committee held at the end of March to discuss the proposed Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Amendment Bill ended rather dramatically amid much anger and mud-slinging, none of which had anything directly to do with the highly charged issue of abortion.

Committee members rejected the presentation by Cheryllyn Dudley of the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) as “bullying,” “intimidating” and “condescending”. She was basically told to come back when she had calmed down, and not to address the Committee again using “that tone”.

It had all started off amicably, with Dudley coming clean and announcing, for those who were not aware of it, that her party was opposed to abortion, “believes in the sanctity of life and looks forward to the time when the life of an unborn child gets the protection it deserves”.

She went on to assure the Committee that the proposed amendment had no intention of subverting the Constitution. She cited Section 12 2 (a) of the Constitution which provides for the right to “bodily and psychological integrity which includes the right to make decisions concerning reproduction” and said all that the amendment proposed was “to enhance this constitutional right so that women are equipped to make an informed choice”.

'Sometimes it was necessary to be realistic.'

She was only “looking to see how the rights of the unborn child can be improved. My major challenge is to see what improvements could be done within the Constitution.”

So what exactly was the conflict about? The Committee heard her out, but when Chairperson Mary-Ann Dunjwa tried to close the meeting at the end of the presentation by suggesting that questions and discussion be held over for another time ‑ and possibly trying to protect Dudley from what would come next ‑ the Committee was having none of it.

It could be they took issue with proposed amendments that flew in the face of the principles underlying the existing Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Bill of 2006, which are premised on the rights to individual choice and freedom entrenched in the Constitution.

The discussion was opened by Demakaleng Kopane of the DA who pointed out that, “sometimes it was necessary to be realistic”. She asked the first and most obvious question: How were these proposed amendments going to be funded?

The Bill would require social workers. Five years ago it was estimated that South African was short of 60,000 social workers who were needed to implement the Children’s Act, which defends and protects the rights of children. “How will we suddenly find these social workers?” she asked.

How would the already under-funded and desperately over-stretched health care system provide ultrasound facilities to all clinics in the country that provided abortions? Kopane used the example of clinics in Limpopo where the incubators did not work, patients slept on the floor as there were not enough beds, there was not enough money to provide medication for hypertension, there was not even soap to wash the dishes. Kopane asked Dudley for her “funding model”.

Unfazed, Dudley argued that the costs had been “exaggerated”. At around R17 000 per ultrasound machine for each of South Africa’s 4 200 clinics the cost would be R71million. But she assured the Committee that most clinics already have these machines, so it was not the case that new equipment would need to be procured on that scale. Basing her calculation on the 15-year average life span of an ultrasound machine her calculations came to R5million per year, out of the R42 billion annual health budget.

That was very affordable, she said. In fact the Bill would reduce discrimination by ensuring that every pregnant woman had access to an ultrasound.

Not unexpectedly, the Committee was having none of it. And as Dudley became more emotional (her word), the Members’ impatience grew.

No one was disputing the value of providing mandatory scans for all pregnant women. But it was unclear why the proposed Bill required that women see their foetuses as part of the counselling process.

Access to a social worker for those women considering a late abortion could be of help to those in distress, but why does the Bill stipulate that the social worker has to inform the women of other options available to them, other than abortion, such as adoption, and offer to help access social grants and safe housing?

She was adamant that a compulsory scan does not put pressure on the mother. Research has shown that many women do not change their minds after seeing an image of the baby, “but a percentage do change their minds and are grateful that they did not abort.

“One woman we spoke to was having a late termination and was adamant that she didn’t want counselling and as the baby was coming out she screamed ‘doctor, doctor, save my baby,’ but of course it was too late. So there are those women who would have made a different choice if they had seen the reality of the child.”

That’s not pressure, she said. The main reason for the scan was to encourage the practice of safe sex and the use of contraception. It was mainly aimed at those who came back for a 2nd, 3rd or even 4th abortion, she explained. “They think of it as a lump of tissue not actually a life developing inside them.”

She explained that we know more than we did in 2006 when the law was passed. It has now been “scientifically confirmed” that from 18 weeks “babies suffer excruciating pain at dismemberment abortion and chemical abortion.

“Ripping arms and legs off children is prompting more countries to consider tightening abortion laws.” She gave Norway as an example where midwives are raising concerns about the number of healthy babies that are being aborted on social grounds.

A social worker would just add another layer of protection to the pregnant mother’s right, said Dudley, despite the point made by Amos Mahlalela of the ANC that the Constitution demands that the woman has a right to make her own decision regarding abortion, and the ultrasound and counselling would compromise that right.

He pointed out not only did the Constitution require that a woman had to take an individual decision that was not influenced by other factors, so too did the World Health Organisation (WHO), of which South Africa was a signatory. Its guidelines stated that bringing in a third-party’s authorisation by including a social worker was introducing a “barrier” to women’s access to abortion and should be discouraged.

But Dudley saw no reason to comply with the requirements of the WHO. If South Africa was prepared to ignore the International Criminal Court, she said, presumably referring to former president Zuma’s readiness to flout his duty to arrest Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir during his 2015 visit, why should we be constrained by the rules of the WHO?

On this point, Dudley’s argument became even more bizarre. She asked why would WHO say an ultrasound was not necessary unless it is “hiding something and [doesn’t] want women to know what is going on with their bodies”.

South Africa need not “be tied” to countries that had written the WHO guidelines when those were the countries that had wanted to cull the population in Africa at some point?

“We are not stupid idiots. You need information to actually make an informed choice [that is] not based on what the WHO wants you to think is going in with your body, but what is really going on.

“Why do we want to act as if we are imbecile children who can’t cope with something? I am telling you that it [a foetus] is perfectly formed even at 13 weeks when it comes out in your hands. If I am sounding emotional it’s because of that woman that I am thinking about, who has to face that trauma because nobody thought to give her the information she needs.”

She topped off her argument with an unfortunate turn of phrase. “Killing someone when they are viable and ready to be born is overkill,” she concluded. “Let’s not be that kind of country.”

We are going to bust our guts to get more social workers, aren’t we, she challenged the Committee which by then was fairly exasperated.

She was warned that the proposals would create a huge burden to an already over-burdened system. “This is not progress. It doesn’t take transformation forward but derails it,” said Mahlalela.

She was asked not to impose her own religion on the House, because politics and religion do not belong together. “This is not a religious institution this is a political institution.”

The Committee concluded that it was “very unfortunate that she became emotional. The way she handled this put us in a difficult position. This was not a debate in the house. She can’t bully us.”

The Chairperson eventually brought an end to the discussion, stepping in “to protect” Dudley who by then had been told to “go to Khayelitsha and talk to the ladies there” before she claimed to represent anyone.

Dunjwa, a former health worker, recalled “laying out the bodies” of women who had died as a result of botched abortions.

“Some of these things you are talking about are things we have handled, not things we have read about.”

Moira Levy

Additional information sourced from the Parliamentary Monitoring Group

Last modified on Friday, 30 March 2018 17:14

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