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Abortions are legal in South Africa – but half of them are done illegally

Abortions in South Africa have been legal for decades and South Africans should be able to access free abortions from public health facilities. Yet 50% of the abortions performed in South Africa are illegal.

While people wishing to abort are protected legally, practically speaking, those needing abortions are not supported.

1. There is poor information about abortions

Information about abortions in South Africa is not made accessible. A report found that of the 505 medical facilities designated to perform terminations of pregnancy, only 246 could be located. This is only seven percent of the healthcare centers in South Africa. Any information offered by the National Department of Health is often not very reliable, which means that those needing abortions have to do extensive research of their own.

While flyers are pasted along South African streets offering the services of illegal abortions, information about legal abortions is much harder to come by.

2. Healthcare workers may refuse to perform abortions or shame those choosing to abort

Healthcare workers have the right to refuse to perform an abortion on moral grounds. In such cases, they are supposed to refer patients to someone who will perform the abortion. Yet, often this doesn’t happen.

It is likely that many people who have been refused abortion services from local hospitals turn towards illegal abortions. People needing abortions are also often put on long waiting lists. With a 12-week limit to performing legal abortions, long waiting lists may push many people out of the legal timeframe.

On top of this, many South Africans who have aborted at public healthcare centers have faced judgment and stigmatization from the medical professionals performing the abortions.

3. Abortion clinics are far away

With only a small percentage of healthcare centers performing abortions, people needing abortions often have to travel far. For some, this simply isn’t an option.

Someone I know needed an abortion recently and the local hospital wouldn’t perform a surgical abortion. As a result, she had to travel 120 km to the nearest Marie Stopes. If she didn’t have access to a car, someone willing to drive and funding; going to Marie Stopes wouldn’t have been an option. This may have resulted in her getting an illegal abortion.

On top of this, many Marie Stopes only bring in a doctor every few weeks. What this means is that people needing surgical abortions have to be available for the abortion on the day the doctor is there. Having to wait weeks for the next time the doctor comes in may also be too late to be legally allowed to have their abortion.

4. Private clinics are expensive

Faced with inaccessible, stigmatizing and often dysfunctional public healthcare – the remaining legal option for abortions are private clinics. Marie Stopes seems to be the only well-known private clinic and there are only a few practices in the country.

Not only are the practices few and far between but the cost of getting an abortion done is pretty hefty. A surgical abortion at Marie Stopes costs over R3,000.

This is the equivalent of the monthly income of a South African earning minimum wage. A large portion of the population lives on minimum wage or less than minimum wage. Spending an entire wage which is often used to feed a family is not an option for many.

The inaccessibility of legal abortions leads countless people to have backstreet abortions or being forced to carry their pregnancy. While South Africans have the right to abortions, the country has a long way to go in making sure people have access to this right.

By Alice Draper

Alice Draper is a freelance writer based in South Africa. When Alice isn't behind her laptop or book you may find her experimenting in the kitchen, trying (often in vain) to keep her garden alive or drinking wine with a friend.