Debate on abortion still remains a contentious issue in Malawi

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Abortion with no proper reason is not just prohibited by Islam but it is also illegal in Malawi. However, behind closed doors it is a common practice among women and girls without any official or legal option.

When it comes to abortion in Islam, it becomes obligatory for everyone to know that Muslim scholars have different views about abortion. In Islam, the general rule about abortion is that it is reprehensible (not allowed) or disfavored (makruh) except in a set of limited circumstances. In Islam preserving a mother’s life and keeping the stability of her health takes precedence over the fetus unstable life.

The cases which may make abortion allowable, according to some scholars in Islam, may include rape (which may result to severe psychological trauma of a mother and a child to be born), pregnancy of minors (which may result to loss of mother’s life), any medical situation in which the pregnancy would lead to the mother’s death etc. Summarily, that’s all there is into abortion issue in Islam.

When it comes to our government, the current law on abortion is governed by the Penal Code sections 149,150,151 and 243 of Penal Sections where abortion is prohibited with an exception where termination of pregnancy is allowed when the life of the mother is threatened.

The Malawi Penal Code originated from the British Colonial Penal Code and has not changed on issues on abortion.

Section 149 prohibits the act of procuring the miscarriage of a woman through unlawful administration of any poison noxious substance or the use of force.

It applies to the third parties who assist a woman to procure an abortion and include legitimate health care providers and other third parties who provide services that result in procurement of the miscarriage of a woman.

The third party committing the act of procuring miscarriage must do so with an intent to do the act and when it is irrelevant whether the woman whom the act is performed is in fact pregnant or not

As the debate rages on, there are disagreements from different quarters of the society on whether women and girls should be allowed to terminate pregnancy if they wish to do so.

Though it is illegal to do abortion in Malawi, most women and girls are doing it with the help of some health workers, traditional doctors and others on their own.

Most of people who recently attended the Special Review of the Law on abortion by the Special Law Commission on abortion strongly refused to change the current law on abortion saying that doing so it is criminal offence and a taboo according to Malawian culture.

They went on to say that health care providers and other people who assist women and girls do abortion should be charged with murder case.

Section 243 protects health care providers who procure abortion through surgical operations in good faith with reasonable care to preserve the mother’s life.

There is therefore a possibility under the law, for health care professional to perform an abortion where the life of the mother is threatened.

The commission observed that section 243 of the penal code provides for statutory defence for health care providers conducting surgical operations in good faith with reasonable care where the operation will preserve mother’s life.

The commission also observed that the defence is rather limited in scope as it can only be applied with certainty to registered health care providers and surgical operation only.

Secondly, the commission also observed that the meaning of the phrase to preserve mother’s life is unclear.

After a lot of discussions considering the findings from views of stakeholders the commission settled for the liberalization of the law on abortion where the life of a woman risk or threatened, for instance where the woman develops high blood pressure, cancer, renal failure, heart problems or continued pregnancy that may negatively affect the viability and compatibility with life (of a mother).

Another cases for abortion liberalization was when there seems to be severe foetal malformation which will affect viability and compatibility with life and in cases of rape, defilement, incest.

The magnitude of abortion in Malawi through a number of studies that have been conducted to examine abortion situation in Malawi shows that unsafe abortion is a major public health problem in Malawi.

The studies also revealed that eighty percent of women who procure abortions are married and come from religious backgrounds.

The situation is not unique for Malawi, as globally 23 out 100 women in the age group 15-44 procure abortion each year, the rate for Malawi is also the same.

The studies further reveal that 48,600-86,000 induced abortions are procured each year globally which translates into 11 induced abortions for every 100 babies born alive.

Seventeen percent of all deaths are due to complications of pregnancy in Malawi; this makes unsafe abortion the fourth commonest cause of maternal deaths in Malawi.

Many other women who procure abortion do not die but one in five of these women were maimed by severe complications while another one in fourteen experienced moderately severe complications, or have their organs so badly damaged that they are not able to be pregnant again which is tragic as some of these are girls yet to commence their reproductive lives.

The studies also reveal that government through the Ministry of Health spends 300 million Kwacha to treat complications on abortion on women who are admitted to health facilities around the country, a large percent is used on unsafe abortion.

Most women despite knowing that unsafe abortion is danger to one’s health and against the teachings of their faith, they still do it rather than keeping the unwanted pregnancies.

Government through the Ministry of Health supports the concept of comprehensive reproductive health as defined in the 1994 International Conference of Population and Development in Cairo and endorsed at the fourth World conference of women in Beijing.

Both conferences defined reproductive health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity in all matters relating to reproductive health system.

In line with this definition the overall policy goal of Malawi government through Sexual and reproductive health and Rights (SRHR) 2009, which is to provide a framework for provision of accessible, affordable, comprehensive  sexual and reproductive health to all women, men, and young people in Malawi through informed choice to enable them attain their reproductive rights and goals safely; thus making women, adolescent girls to avoid unwanted sexual  injury.