Let abortion not derail maternal death debate

February 27, 2007

KAMPALA, UGANDA – Following up on some recent commentaries fearing abortion is going to be legalised in Uganda, maybe the only thing left to say is that it’s not happening.

Uganda is not close to changing its law. Nothing is happening. Zero. Zilch. Negative. No action.

“There’s no bill before government, and I can’t see one anytime soon. Not even in the next 10 years,” is how Mityana District MP Sylvia Namabidde Ssinabulya said it to me. Indeed, hell might freeze solid before Uganda’s top leaders compromise their own convictions on the issue. It just won’t happen, and this is good.

With this said, Uganda’s penal code, which carries a 14-year jail term for anyone causing an abortion, isn’t stopping 300,000 annual abortions apparently performed in Uganda already.

Neither is the Constitution, which prohibits abortion unless “authorised by law,” that is a doctor seeking judge approval. Law or not, abortion appears here to stay. It’s unfortunate, but true. And this now is enough about this non-story. Except to say that it arose at the recent African Union gathering in Ethiopia, where, again, top Ugandans made assurances that abortion is absolutely not being legalised.

And except to add that even the term “legalising” can be unclear, because globally abortion laws vary widely. Of 193 countries, 64 now allow abortion on demand or for socio-economic reasons, 59 to save the mother, 122 to protect her health, 83 in cases of rape or incest, and 76 to remove an unhealthy child. Officially, three countries – Malta, El Salvador and the Vatican City – ban abortion outright.

For Ugandans, the real story is this: dead mothers. Shaking and convulsing, and crying in horrible, blood-splattered agony, mothers who are dying terrible deaths while doing something as natural and loving as giving birth. This is the real story that needs to be told repeatedly until nobody can stand it anymore.

In Uganda, 6,000 women now die annually in childbirth. Three in five are females between 13 and 24, girls who have barely left the playground. For every dead mom, three infants die, four other children are left behind, and 35 other mothers who survive childbirth are disabled.

Uganda’s government is beginningto understand this, the real story. This is why MP Ssinabulya recently moved the government to at least start monitoring maternal deaths, and boost obstetrical services to the extent possible in Uganda’s meagre health system, where just four per cent of rural health units have emergency obstetrical care.

True, Ssinabulya’s recent motion included unsafe abortion as a cause of maternal deaths. To ignore this would be to put one’s head in the sand. But that’s not any movement to legalise abortion. It’s just a fact.

Uganda is not alone in all this. Maternal mortality has been called “the last unreached frontier of modern medicine.” In the developing world, 1,500 women die in childbirth every day. Last century, more women died from childbirth than soldiers killed in either world war, and from 1980 to 2000, childbirth claimed more women than AIDS.

Nonetheless, there are people who believe that this country can be a leader in this fight, just like it’s been a beacon of hope in reducing AIDS. So we need to let the government continue what it’s started with health workers, and encourage other sectors – educators and lawyers and social scientists and others – to join the team.

If we distract them from keeping their eye on the real ball, that is saving mothers, we’re just missing the forest for the trees.

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February 27, 2007 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]


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