With over 141,000 women in Malawi inducing abortions annually mostly through unsafe means, an Anglican Church priest has called for enactment of new abortion law. Below is an article by REV. FR. MARTIN KALIMBE published in the column on Sexual and Reproductive Health which Centre for Solutions Journalism is running in The Daily Times of Malawi.
Is the church in support of legalisation of abortion? This is a question which the media posed to me during a recent live debate on Television Malawi.
It was a difficult question to answer because the church is completely divided on the issue of abortion. There are also cases where members of the clergy within the same church are also divided on the issue.
Different denominations have adopted diverse positions on abortion. Some religious groups are opposed to all induced abortions. Their opposition is so strong that they do not even value the life of the women carrying the fetus. As far as they are concerned, abortion should not be conducted under any circumstances. Using Biblical literalism, such groups argue that abortion is murder.
There are some denominations which unlike the fundamentalists allow abortion only one condition. The condition being that abortion should only be performed to save the woman's life.
We also have some believers who usually look at the circumstances of a pregnant woman to make their decision. Such groups, among others, accept that medical workers are at liberty to perform abortion under several conditions including in instances of saving a woman's life, fetal malformation and when pregnancy was caused by rape, defilement or incest.
There are also other churches which contend that the final decision on whether to terminate the pregnancy or not, should be made by the pregnant woman after appropriate consultation with medical doctors or clinicians. Such denominations recognise that abortion can be a legitimate option for some women who face exceptional circumstances that present serious moral or medical dilemmas.
Because of diversity of religions, others believe that abortion is only acceptable within the first 120 days of pregnancy but not thereafter. According to such religions, ensoulment of the fetus takes place after 120 days. It is, therefore, their belief that abortion is only permissible during the first 120 days of pregnancy but not after those stipulated days.
The heart of the matter is straightforward. We, members of the clergy, are divided on the issue of abortion and this explains why some are openly campaigning for enactment of the proposed Termination of Pregnancy Bill as others are strongly protesting against its enactment.
At personal level, I fully support the new Termination of Pregnancy Bill which the Law Commission has proposed. For starters, the proposed Bill criminalises abortion and only allows it in cases of significant threats to the pregnant woman's life, serious jeopardy to her health, severe congenital defects carefully diagnosed in the fetus, and pregnancy resulting from defilement, rape or incest.
If you asked me about that proposed law, Malawi government through the Law Commission should be praised for coming with legislation which prohibits free-for-all provision of safe abortion services and instead only allows the procedures to be carried out on reasonable grounds.
The proposed legislation empowers the clergy who are completely against abortion to convince their members to refrain from the procedure. The same law also allows churches that have no problems with members accessing safe abortion in such cases as rape to benefit.
In other words, we have a beautiful piece of abortion legislation which recognizes that access to safe abortion, as well as bearing children are matters for individual conscience and not government or religious mandate.
I know there are some who oppose abortion based on the controversial question on the beginning of life. The notion that life begins at the moment of conception is a belief held by some, but not all, religious groups. In fact, the Bible never mentions abortion and does not deal with the question of when life begins.
Genesis 2:7 (God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being") refers to the specific, unique event of the creation of Adam out of the earth. It says nothing about the process of conception, pregnancy, and birth.
The Book of Exodus clearly indicates that the fetus does not have the same legal status as a person (Chapter 21:22-23). That verse indicates that if a man pushes a pregnant woman and she then miscarries, he is required only to pay a fine. If the fetus were considered a full person, he would be punished more severely as though he had taken a life.
In conclusion, our religions have many different tenets about abortion. Some oppose abortion in all cases. Others believe abortion must be allowed in several cases including rape and incest. We also have churches which believe that the decision on abortion must be the woman's because she is the person most affected.
When making laws that affect individuals, it should be up to individuals to make decisions and not churches. A shining example is of beer drinking. Some regard it as a sin and others do not regard it as a sin. Individuals make their own free choices and the law was coined to benefit both groups.
The same should apply to abortion law. Those who believe it is a sin, they will refrain from terminating their pregnancy and those who believe have good grounds should be able to access the services in public hospitals. God will judge those who induce abortion according to their various circumstances according to His Great wisdom.
It is my submission that the Malawi government should enact Termination of Pregnancy Bill in order save lives of women who injure and kill themselves when seeking backstreet abortions from quacks. After all as religious clerics our core duty is to save souls and this is why we concentrate much on the spiritual life of our members while the duty of doctors is to save lives as they concentrate on the physical well-being of citizens. Can we win a soul of woman who has died in the process of inducing unsafe abortion? Definitely no! We, hence, need doctors to save the woman's life first through provision of safe abortion services and then we, the priests, can come in and counsel them to repent.
The author, an Anglican priest, is a Board member of a human rights media NGO, Centre for Solutions Journalism (CSJ) in Malawi. CSJ is advocating for the enactment of Malawi's Termination of Pregnancy Bill.