A daily news outlet carried the evocative and emotive image of a clay fetus in a woman’s hands, and claimed that rising abortions were putting strain on the Eastern Cape abortion clinics.
“Pregnant schoolgirls – some as young as 12 – are putting a massive strain on Eastern Cape abortion clinics, forcing desperate women into the often lethal clutches of backstreet operators,” it reported last week.
The story was quickly picked up by Sapa and from there made its way on to a number of other news websites.
It spoke of “shocking statistics” and a “damning picture” but for me, the most damning thing about it was its tunnel-vision and shameless moralising on a multifaceted problem for which there are no easy answers.
There are shocking numbers in the story: 12 000 legal abortions recorded in the province last year (one every 10 minutes), 8 420 pregnancies in 2009/2010 among school pupils from Eastern Cape, and 710 pregnant women who died at Eastern Cape hospitals.
But this data is problematic.
The article draws together disparate statistics to create a vignette of a purported abortion crisis in the Eastern Cape but the numbers don’t quite add up.
It seems that the “one abortion every 10 minutes” statement was worked out as a back of the envelope calculation based on the 12 000 abortions recorded last year.
So many abortions per hour, so many per day, extrapolated over roughly 250 working days per year. But what this has to do with the 8 000-odd pregnancies among school pupils or the 710 deaths of pregnant women is unclear.
Not every school pupil in this country is a teenager, as we well know, and not every teenager attends school.
What the pregnant women died of or what they have to do with the teenagers or abortions is not specified.
But one would assume that if that many pregnant women are dying in Eastern Cape hospitals, it serves only to provide a young woman considering an abortion with another reason to terminate a pregnancy.
Even the 12 000 legal abortions noted – a number I assume has been rounded to the nearest thousand – can surely not be considered any more of a crisis than the roughly 11 500 abortions performed in the province in either 2007 or 2008.
There may be a crisis in the Eastern Cape but I’ll warrant it isn’t the one the news report suggests.
The key thrust of the article seems to be that teenagers – specifically teenaged girls, for men and boys and their role on conception are never mentioned in this article – are having shameless, unapologetic sex and refusing to use contraception.
It states that while some of the teens seeking abortions have been raped and some coerced into sex, others use abortion “simply as a means of contraception”. The judgment in the tone of the article is unmistaken.
And if you miss it in the first few paragraphs, you need only read further to catch it again. “Not even the risks of contracting HIV/Aids or other sexually transmitted diseases deter the province’s teenagers from becoming pregnant,” it says, when what is seems to be implying is that not even the risk of contracting an STI deters the teens from having sex.
This is the real problem.
The kids are blasé about sex, which should be special and precious, says the director of a Uitenhage crisis pregnancy centre.
It’s not mentioned that the centre is a pro-life outfit, which describes itself as “first and foremost a ministry to woman in a crisis situation, with Jesus Christ as the foundation”.
A social worker then claims that the girls – supposedly among those the reporters found among a “neverending stream of women queueing for abortions” – “know about sex” and that “there is no problem with access to contraceptives”.
This in a province known for its drug stockouts and problems supplying nurses with gloves and syringes, and a country which distributes about 15 condoms per man per year.
Beyond the questions of whether or not there are enough condoms and contraceptives available, many researchers in the field of reproductive health will say that one of the biggest problems preventing access to contraceptives for young people is the negative attitudes of clinic staff, who judge and scold and threaten to tell teenagers’ parents about their contraception use.
They will also tell that many South Africans – even educated, urban South Africans – lack a basic understanding of sex and the reproductive system.
Then the social worker, continuing with her victim-blaming stance, claims that her patients are getting younger and younger, and says that her clinic has seen about six pregnant primary school pupils in the past month.
Yet there’s no engagement with the fact that by law, sex with a minor is illegal.
One can’t but ask whether the rapes of these minors were reported to the police, as required by the Children’s Act.
There’s a dearth of social workers in this country, and particularly in the Eastern Cape, where there are over 30 000 child-headed households and more than 170 000 Aids orphans.
Whether the girls referred to here come from such vulnerable home situations is not addressed and it’s a pity the social worker quoted did not comment on this challenge.
Meanwhile, Sizwe Kupelo, the provincial health spokesperson, makes the unfounded statement that “there is an increasing demand for abortion because teenagers do not want to use contraceptives”.
This cavalier statement flies in the face of good research.
The third national HIV survey, conducted in 2009, showed that condom use among young people aged 15 to 24 has increased dramatically in the past few years – from 57% in 2002 to 87% in 2008 among young males, and from 46% to 73% among young females.
Meanwhile, a 2009 report on teenage pregnancy among schoolgoers, conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) for the department of basic education, showed similar findings – although the number of unintended pregnancies among teenagers is unacceptably high, overall fertility in this group is declining, in part as a result of greater contraception use.
This HSRC report speaks of a “moral panic” over rising teen pregnancy, a phenomenon that is largely unfounded.
“What the moral panic argument does is associate teenage sexuality and failure to use contraception with deviant individual-level behavior,” it says.
It notes that although substantial progress has been made in reducing teen pregnancies since democracy, it has “grown in significance as a social construct and come to represent one of several indicators of burgeoning adolescent delinquency, sexual permissiveness and moral decay”.
This story replicates these arguments and perpetuates this stereotype. What one would have expected from the report, instead of moralising and the victim blaming, would have been some attempt to engage with the real issues that lead to unwanted pregnancy among teenagers – poverty, lack of access to education, and unhealthy relationships.
Young people who grow up in informal settlements are at the highest risk of teen pregnancy. Dropping out of school nearly doubles the chances of teen pregnancy.
Having only one parent in the home and being involved in a relationship with an unequal power balance also compounds the risk.
Regardless of one’s religious or moral feelings on the question of abortion, access to reproductive healthcare is specifically guaranteed by the Constitution and abortion is legal in South Africa.
The 12-year-old who seeks out an abortion has been failed by the system.
She doesn’t need our judgment or disdain but care and support.