1 February 2012

Zambia: Abortions Still Provided By Clinics Despite Illegality

Photo: Tiggy Ridley/IRIN
A pregnant woman is given a routine check-up at a clinic in Monrovia.

Despite being illegal, abortions are still available in Zambia's capital at very low fees through private medical practitioners - in particular, by Chinese doctors who remain poorly-regulated in the country.

Posing as someone seeking an abortion for hiw spouse, I recently visited several private clinics around the Zambian capital Lusaka, and discovered that for as little as 20 euros (around ZMK 150 000), women can have their "unwanted pregnancy" terminated at most clinics in the central African city.

My research revealed that both conventional medical practitioners and traditional healers clearly understand that providing such a "highly risky medical service" is a serious criminal act - the equivalent of murder under Zambian law - but they seem to remain largely unconcerned.

"Some pregnancies may endanger the lives of the mother. Other expectant mothers may not be in a position, financially, to provide proper care to their child when it's born. So we try and help them," said a Chinese doctor who did not want to be named. "It is not our wish for people to abort their pregnancies but we do it on request."

Illegal abortions

At a popular Chinese clinic in Lusaka's middle-class township of Kabwata, a Chinese doctor agreed to conduct an abortion for my partner without even questioning why she wanted it done. The doctor simply outlined the cost of 38 euros (around ZMK 250 000) and said she would perform the procedure as soon as she received the payment. We promised to return later.

At another three clinics (one Zambian and two Chinese), situated right in the heart of Lusaka town, the operators also agreed to carry out the operation but at a much lower fee of 20 euros. They promised quick and satisfactory results.

In an interview, Ministry of Health spokesperson, Dr Reuben Mbewe warned that the state would arrest and prosecute any private clinics found offering abortions because it was a criminal offence under Zambian law.

"Not criminals but life savers"

But according to Rodwell Vongo, head of the Traditional Healers and Practitioners Association of Zambia (THAPAZ) and himself a traditional healer, practitioners offering the service are "not criminals but professionals who are helping to save people's lives." Other practitioners backed Dr Vongo's view.

Further interviews with several Zambian women indicated that as the HIV/AIDS pandemic becomes more prevalent and poverty levels grow, more women are approaching local private local clinics for assistance to abort their pregnancies and to avoid the high cost of looking after children.

Mary Kanchule (a pseudonym), 27, said she had an abortion at 16 because her pregnancy was "a mistake" and her boyfriend was unemployed and therefore unable to support the child if it was born. Her termination was carried out by a traditional healer who operates at her local market.

"I sometimes feel guilty about my decision to abort, but there was nothing I could do because I just had to do it," she stated.

Risks and regrets

Shop assistant, Juliet Katebe, aged 23, has come to regret her decision to have an abortion. She got pregnant as a 15-year-old and it was decided to have an abortion at a private clinic.

"My parents made all the arrangements and paid for the operation because they felt I was too young to have a baby and they wanted me to continue with school," Katebe said.

"It was a painful experience and I almost died. The doctor had to rupture my placenta in order to access the fetus," she explained.

"I regret the whole process because now I am told I cannot bear children," said Katebe. "I blame my parents for everything."

Under Zambian law, people found conducting abortions are charged with murder because the act is still regarded as the deliberate termination of human life. Persons convicted of murder are sentenced to life in prison and or even death.

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