Destigmatizing abortion: starting the conversation

In honour of International Safe Abortion Day on 28 September, the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction research programme hosted a discussion on the state of reproductive rights and justice in South Africa. Researchers from the unit, Yanela Ndabula and Jabulile Mavuso, honed in on stigmas and myths attached to abortion that exacerbate illegal abortion figures.

Abortion has been legal in South Africa for 21 years following the implementation of the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996. The Act was introduced to replace the Abortion and Sterilisation Act which perpetuated mortality rates as it forced womxn to resort to illegal, unsafe abortions. The new Act aimed to implement informed consent, whereby womxn are afforded access to the necessary information about health care facilities.

Despite this, there is still an overwhelming number of womxn who choose ‘back door’ abortions. According to Ndabula, this is partially a result of the government’s failure to publicise information on accessing free and safe abortions.

Surveys conducted with high school students from Buffalo revealed that fewer than half of the respondents were aware that abortions are legal on request, giving rise to the common misconception that abortions are only available in extreme circumstances.

Speaker Yanela Ndabula addresses the audience.

Illegal abortions are also largely a direct consequence of the way female bodies continue to be policed in South Africa and on a global level. The stigmatisation of abortion fosters a culture that criminalises womxn and does not acknowledge their individual circumstances or bodily autonomy.

Mavuso noted that the idea that abortion is wrong and abnormal is a prevalent and socially constructed one.* This can be attributed to the ideal of womxn as having an obligation to reproduce because of their biological capacity to do so, which posits abortion as not fulfilling these obligations. A plethora of myths that have been debunked still circulate that claim abortion can cause cancer, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or infertility.

Mavuso emphasised that while there are a variety of factors that may lead a womxn to choose to terminate her pregnancy, no womxn should ever be criticised for choosing to do so. By claiming to be a country with gender equality, we must acknowledge that womxn should have the freedom to choose to prioritise their education, career, or even other children over an unborn foetus.

Jabulile Mavuso discusses stigmas around abortions.

This is especially crucial to note in situations where women are HIV-positive, and the process of pregnancy increases the potential of harm to both the womxn and the child. Furthermore, it should be acknowledged that in many scenarios of intimate partner violence, womxn do not have the power to negotiate condom usage. Restricting their access to abortion because of notions that it is sinful only serves to perpetuate a culture of victim blaming.

The destigmatisation of abortion in all spaces across the country was brought to the fore by an audience member stating that these conversations always happen within an echo chamber, meaning these issues are discussed in hyper-intellectualised environments where the same ideas are continuously reinforced because all parties engaging in the conversation occupy similar positions.

Conversations around abortion need to be started in places that can foster robust debate to steer the movement towards destigmatising abortion and engaging students and adults the discourse in a way that is more comprehensive than the sex education offered in high school curriculums.

*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misquoted Mavuso stating she noted that rural communities often portray abortion as morally wrong or abnormal. This error leads to the portrayal of rural communities in a way that perpetuates ‘progressive urban’-‘backward rural’ stereotypes, which are harmful. This has been corrected and we apologise for this error.


Words by Shannon Lorimer 

Images by James Fowler