New Vision (Kampala)

5 January 2010

Uganda: Abortion is Legal But We Just Don't Know It

opinion

Kampala — JUST the mere mention of abortion puts everyone's nerves on edge. Reason? Abortion is illegal in Uganda.

However, the irony of it all is that post abortion care and treatment for abortion complications is not illegal. In fact, a victim is not even required to disclose where, or who conducted the procedure.

How many women have been arrested while seeking post abortion care? Yet people have murdered, turned themselves in and have been arrested.

While pursuing an undercover story on the state of post abortion care in Mulago Hospital recently, many of the women in the queue to see the midwives were victims of an abortion gone wrong.

However, when I mentioned I was suffering from complications of the procedure (to prompt a reaction), I attracted stares of shock. I had expected to hear it from the horses' mouths, but that was not to be.

Yet abortion can be spontaneous - commonly known as miscarriages or induced, with similar complications.

Besides, sections 136 to 138, 205 and 207 of the penal Code, state that any person, who with intent to procure the miscarriage of a woman, unlawfully administers any noxious thing, or uses any other means is subject to imprisonment for 14 years.

A pregnant woman who undertakes the same act, or consents to its performance is subject to a seven-year imprisonment. Any person who unlawfully supplies means to procure an abortion knowing that it is unlawfully intended for that purpose is subject to a three-year imprisonment. Yet Section 217 of the same code says a person is not criminally responsible for performing an abortion in good faith and with reasonable care and skill for the preservation of the mother's life.

In addition, Section 205 of the code provides that no person shall be guilty of the offence of causing by willful act a child to die before it has an independent existence from its mother if the act was carried out in good faith for the purpose of preserving the mother's life.

The World Health Organisation says health is not only the absence of infirmity and disease, but also a state of physical, mental and social well-being. Thus, since abortion is normally a result of an unwanted pregnancy, with women going to the extremes of suicide, it is already legal even by our local parameters.

Should abortion advocates in Uganda push the Government to liberalise the legal provisions to include rape, defilement and incest? It is already legal to 'preserve a woman's mental and psychological health.'

And women know where to get the services. The people that are often arrested are quacks, who have endangered women's lives by offering a service where they are not skilled, causing preventable deaths.

Let us interpret and help the public understand the law, make it practical by breaking the barriers that call for two expert doctors to consent and sensitise women about the rights to abortion as a health intervention.

When women choose to abort, let us ensure they do it freely and hygienically to avoid complications. This is possible if we include abortion and post abortion care training in our health curricula in medical schools and if we openly discuss abortion.

Unfortunately, our legislators find the debate on abortion a no-go-area. A recent study on abortion found that MPs do not want to discuss abortion because they do not want to appear like they are encouraging it.

While disseminating the findings of the study, Dr Peter Ibembe, the national coordinator, Reproductive Health Uganda said most MPs perceive their communities to be strongly against induced abortion and also want to flow with their flock even when they believe the procedure is also justified in cases of defilement, incest and rape.

This is already legal going by provisions of the penal code to 'save the life and health of a mother.' Hence, who will start the abortion debate if our legislators avoid it in fear of controversy? At least I have.

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