/ 17 January 2008

Abortion amendment Bill passed by Assembly

The National Assembly on Thursday passed the Bill for which it was specially called back from holiday. The Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Amendment Bill was passed without debate, but with parties giving a three-minute explanation of their vote.

The Bill passed by 266 votes to 52, with 12 abstentions. The African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), Freedom Front Plus and Federation of Democrats all voted against the measure, while the Democratic Alliance (DA) allowed its members a free vote.

The first three parties object to the idea of anything to do with granting abortions on demand. Some members of the DA wanted counselling to be mandatory, although the Bill allows it to be optional.

Despite the fact that the Bill originated there, it will now be sent back to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) for concurrence. By one of Parliament’s arcane rules, it has to go back because the Assembly amended it on its way through committee, and the NCOP needs to agree with the changes.

The Bill was all done and dusted months ago, but failed a crucial test when challenged by anti-abortion doctors. The Constitutional Court said that there had not been enough public consultation on the draft law, and gave Parliament 18 months to put that right.

There had now been consultation, but the period expired on February 18 and the Bill had to be passed before then.

Then, just as everyone thought it would be fine and the Bill was due to have a clear run on the very last day of last year’s sitting, too many MPs felt the lure of Christmas pudding and the house failed to achieve a quorum.

If the DA at the time had been prepared to help, it would have been all right — but the leader of the opposition in the House, Sandra Botha, said she was not ready to give the ANC a hand, and led her troops out of the House.

James Ngculu, the chairperson of the health committee, referred to the incident on Thursday in the House, saying that the DA let down supporters of women’s rights in doing so.

The NCOP will meet on February 7, the day before the state opening of Parliament, which will give the president plenty of time for his signature to meet the court’s deadline.

Reacting to the passing of the Bill on Thursday, the ACDP said it was deeply disappointed, calling it “another sad day of missed opportunity that leaves women and children increasingly vulnerable”.

“Independent polls show the 1996 abortion law to be South Africa’s most unpopular law and that nine out of 10 South Africans believe abortion is morally wrong. The portfolio committee once again ignored input and proceeded unabated on a mission to steamroll the Bill through Parliament,” it said in a statement. — I-Net Bridge