1. Introduction

The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference welcomes this opportunity to make a submission on this legislation.

The question of abortion is a complex one, involving the welfare of the unborn child, the mother, the father, the family and the community. Experience has shown that women face extraordinarily difficult choices. The destruction of life in the womb is an action with grave consequences, not just for the unborn child, but also for the mother. It is noteworthy that the American woman whose case in the United States Supreme Court opened the way for abortion (Roe vs. Wade) is now one of the most fervent advocates of the right to life.

As in our original submission on the Act, we reaffirm our belief that each human life is sacred from conception. The right to life is the most basic value upon which society is based, and abortion is never justified by the intention of protecting any other value. It is the duty of all sectors of society, including the public authorities, to protect and uphold the rights of children – born and unborn.

We wish to express in the strongest possible language our opposition to The Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act and continue to call for the repeal of this legislation. We believe that the resources used to implement this Act should instead be invested in finding alternatives that affirm the life and dignity of both the mother and the unborn child.

2. Comments on the Bill

In line with Pope John Paul II’s position, where legislation is already in force, and it is not possible to repeal the law, there is a need to limit " the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality", on condition that opposition to such laws is clear and well known. This does not mean that a more restrictive law in this area can be considered just or even acceptable; rather, it is a question of the legitimate and dutiful attempt to obtain at least the partial repeal of an unjust law when its total abrogation is not possible at the moment. With this in mind, we turn our attention to our concerns with the Bill.

2.1 Counselling
We note with regret that the issue of counselling has been overlooked in the proposed amendments. The Act's preamble expressly states that there should be universal access to counselling programmes. Section 4 further states, "the State shall promote the provision of non-mandatory and non-directive counselling".

We believe that it is of the utmost importance that counselling facilities are offered. Many women who are facing the prospect of having an abortion feel abandoned, alone and alienated. Counselling in such instances is absolutely essential. The best interests of women are not served by having an abortion without adequate forms of counselling. Inadequate counselling does not address the myriad of psychological issues that leads a woman to have an abortion, nor does it prepare her for the psychological consequences of having had an abortion.

In addition to this, women need to be able to make an informed decision with full knowledge of the medical, physical and psychological ramifications of their choice. Without such information, women can face a myriad of problems and secondary traumatisation after an abortion. At a time when they are most vulnerable, it is important to ensure that they have the support and information that they need, as well as a good idea of the alternatives that are offered.

2.2 Substitution of "registered midwife" with "registered nurse"
Of further concern is that the Amendment Bill proposes to substitute "registered midwife" with "registered nurse" (clause 7). The potential consequences of this are very serious. According to the current Act, a termination of pregnancy may only be carried out by a medical practitioner or "a registered midwife who has completed the prescribed training course".

Midwives have specialist training in all aspects of pregnancy and professional nurses who are not midwives do not necessarily have the same expertise in this area. The amendment seems to be allowing for people who have less training to be able to perform an abortion. Given that the procedure, even under strict medical supervision, may place the woman at risk, we are alarmed at the prospect that further lives may be jeopardised.

2.3 Designation of facilities
The Amendment Bill proposes to allow Provincial MEC's to designate facilities (clause 2(1)(k)). In addition to this it is proposed that "any public health facility that has a 24 hour maternity service, and which complies with the requirements and conditions … is exempted from requiring approval to terminate pregnancies up to and including 12 weeks" (clause 2(3)).

The Act requires that the Minister designates facilities, a power that is proposed to be delegated to provincial MEC’s for Health. Such delegation could result in disparate application of the law with some provinces having more lenient regulations and practices than others.

Clause 2 (3) would seem to encourage all hospitals with a 24-hour maternity section to provide abortions. Given the large number of privately owned health facilities this would also encourage the provision of termination services for commercial gain. The Church strongly objects to this.

2.4 Insertion of a Conscience Clause
Earlier drafts of the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Bill contained a conscience clause, which is absent from the final Act. It has been argued that the inclusion of a conscience clause is superfluous since this right is already protected in the Constitution (section 15). We are, however, concerned about incidents involving medical staff and doctors whose freedom of conscience has been questioned. In addition to this, there have been instances where doctors and nurses have been discriminated against because of their opposition to abortion. Their experiences range from being made uncomfortable in the work place, to being moved to different departments, and even being denied promotions.

During the briefing of the Reproductive Rights Alliance to the Portfolio Committee for Health in 2002, an argument was made that the Right to Conscience is subject to the limitations clause in the Constitution (section 36). We object to this interpretation and hold that Freedom of Conscience is one of the fundamental rights in our Constitution. For these reasons, and given the contentious nature of the law, we would urge that the Act is amended to include a clause on conscientious objection into the Amendment Bill.

3. Conclusion

The stated goal of the government is to reduce unwanted pregnancies, to reduce morbidity from back-street abortions and to care for the mother – in more than just a physical sense. We believe that, even within the paradigm of the State's thinking, the well being of women is put in jeopardy. Allowing for abortion on demand has adverse psychological and spiritual consequences, and further worsens the position of women.

The goals of reducing unwanted pregnancies, of eliminating morbidity from back street abortions and of taking care of the mother are also sought by the Church, but the way in which we propose to achieve these differs radically.

While continuing our opposition to the law it is necessary simultaneously to create viable alternatives to abortion. Society cannot profess to support the right to life and yet allow thousands of women to experience the distress and need which causes them to contemplate abortion: "the genuineness of convictions about the right to life of the unborn child must be measured by our willingness to give the necessary support. Those who are in a position to help, and who do not, cannot escape their responsibility. No woman should feel that she must face an unhappy pregnancy alone".

For further information, please contact:

Ms Thuli Mzamane Ms Felicity Harrison
Development Officer Researcher
Catholic Health Care Southern African Catholic Bishops’
Conference Parliamentary Liaison Office