Public abortion hearings kick off

19 October 2021 | Local News

Windhoek • [email protected]

Namibia’s historic public hearings on abortion law reform began in high gear on Monday with pro-choice advocates calling on the repeal of an apartheid-era law they argue dehumanises and discriminates against Namibian women.
“I think that as women, when we fought for the independence of this country, we fought for the right not to be oppressed and not to be discriminated against, and I think the abortion law does exactly that. It oppresses and it discriminates,” Namibian lawyer and human rights advocate Bience Gawanas said at the opening of the first day of the public hearings before the parliamentary standing committee on gender equality, social development and family affairs.
Gawanas was one of several presenters speaking on behalf of the pro-choice movement, under the umbrella organisation Voices for Choices & Rights Coalition (VCRC). The coalition also handed over a petition that has attracted over 62 000 signatures supporting the legalisation of abortion in Namibia.
The pro-choice presentation was followed by arguments from the Coalition of Churches in the Omaheke region and Pro-Life Namibia, calling on government to restrict access to legal abortions.

The VCRC’s Ndiilokelwa Nthengwe explained that the 1975 Abortion and Sterilisation Act was enforced by the apartheid administration to advance white population growth. “This law was really about advancing the white legacy, it was not about preserving the rights of all women,” she said.
Gawanas argued that in an “independent Namibia [how can we] still defend and protect a law that was passed for very specific purposes before independence? We have many laws that we repealed because in a free and independent Namibia they just don’t have any place here anymore.”
She underlined that under apartheid many Namibians were subjected to stigmatisation and dehumanising laws “for the longest of time. I think it's time that we create the Namibia that we all want. A Namibia where people make their choices, because that is the right thing to do.”
Omar van Reenen of the pro-choice coalition, warned that women in Namibia are “still chained to the shackles of colonial and apartheid-era laws”.
He said an estimated 500 Namibian women die every year because of preventable unsafe abortions. “There is nothing pro-life letting 500 women die because they do not have their bodily autonomy, because of state-determined procreation.”

Professor Lucy Edwards-Jauch, a pro-choice coalition member, underlined that the 1975 Abortion and Sterilisation Act does not stop abortions from taking place. “What is the sense of continuing such a restrictive law if it does not stop abortions from happening, but the result is severe consequences for women’s lives and for women’s health?”
She said the majority of women undergoing illegal abortions are “young, black women who cannot afford to go to South Africa to have these abortions. Why are we restricting abortion with this law, when the law is simply not effective?”
Edwards-Jauch noted that although Namibia is a secular state, “people’s religious and moral beliefs” have to date dictated abortion rights. “Only women can fall pregnant and only women have that choice of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. So when we legislate, we are discriminating against women because this is a severe impediment to their bodily autonomy.”
Nyasha Chingore of the AIDS and Rights Alliance for southern Africa (ARASA) stressed that the constitutional and democratic rights to health and dignity should take centre stage on the question of legalisation abortions. “All those rights are affected when people cannot access safe abortions, and have to resort to unsafe abortions.”

Anti-abortion petitioners on Monday argued that legalising abortion will not solve the socio-economic problems facing women in Namibia, but worsen them.
Dr Shirley Magazi said abortion on demand will “exacerbate the psychosocial issues” women face, and the focus should be on helping women reach their education, social and economic goals. “Let us make an effort to root out the issues and to help our women.”
She said churches can play a notable role. “We should channel funds to issues to rather uplift our society and not give abortion on demand as an option. We need to see beyond the obvious and look at a comprehensive approach.”
Gobabis based Dr Francois Louw cited studies he said showed that women who undergo abortions, especially teenagers, face short-term and long-term physical and mental health complications. He argued “there is no such thing as a safe abortion, there are always complications and long-term side-effects.”
He said research has shown women struggled with a variety of psychological issues following abortions, including drug and alcohol abuse, denial, guilt, fear and show an increased risk of suicide.
Louw argued “this is a war. Namibia’s morality and family values are under attack here.”