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Fifteen years on, stigma remains – along with secrecy, trauma

Posted : 11 June 2012
FIFTEEN years after abortion was legalised in South Africa, the stigma remains.

Many medical doctors refuse to perform an abortion – among them the head of the PE Hospital Complex’s Obstetrics and Gynaecology Department at Dora Nginza Hospital, Dr Mfundo Mabenge.

“We have mommies who come for check-ups, and women and girls who want abortions. We do not let the two groups meet,” Mabenge says.

“We decided we would rather have those who want abortions kept somewhere else. We call it the women’s clinic. We want to protect them and their rights and we do not want judgment and stigma attaching to them.

“Termination of pregnancy is still frowned upon in our community. Even if you are sexually assaulted and fall pregnant, some believe you do not have the right to terminate.”

Although Mabenge himself refuses to do abortions for religious reasons, he and his fellow doctors will never hesitate to help a woman who is in shock or bleeding from an illegal abortion. “I have to make sure that women do not die.”

The clinic’s abortion nurse, Sharon Hobo, said many teenagers came to the clinic during school hours in the hope nobody would recognise them. “Most of them want to keep this a secret.”

A 17-year-old at the clinic said: “I kept my pregnancy a secret from my aunt for a very long time. I would usually undress in front of her but I stopped. When I came to the clinic for an abortion I came by myself. I did not tell anybody.”

Hobo says teens often come with their friends’ identity documents. “I get very angry when I find this out as we need to know what their history is.”

A study done by NMMU’s Prof Tilla Olivier, in which teachers in Nelson Mandela Bay examined the impact abortion had on teenagers in the classroom, also highlighted a concern the practice was creating a culture of secrecy and evasiveness.

“We see them on the street the one day and you just know they are pregnant,” one Jeffreys Bay teenager told The Herald.

“The next week their baby bump is gone. You ask them about it, but they just say they were never pregnant.”

Olivier’s study showed teachers felt most teenagers would just “blank out the abortion and get on with their lives” and that they would start to keep secrets and become socially isolated.

Jean Downey, from New Life Crisis Pregnancy Centre in Uitenhage, said the culture of secrecy around abortion created a significant problem for women later on.

“We will never judge anybody who chose to have an abortion. But abortion is devastating – emotionally and spiritually. It makes me sad to think what impact it has on the lives of women and girls.

“The trauma these women go through, especially if they have an abortion later in their pregnancy, is immense.”

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