Until 1997, abortions were only available in SA under very limited circumstances. Picture: JACKIE CLAUSEN/ SUNDAY TIMES
Until 1997, abortions were only available in SA under very limited circumstances. Picture: JACKIE CLAUSEN/ SUNDAY TIMES

Parliament has rejected the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) MP Cheryllyn Dudley’s private members bill on abortion, which critics have seen as a thinly veiled attempt to roll back women’s hard-won rights to safely terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Until the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act came into effect in 1997, abortions were only available in SA under extremely limited conditions. They required the approval of two doctors who were not involved in the matter, and in some cases a magistrate or psychiatrist as well.

The act permits abortions within the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy, and at a later stage under certain conditions.

Dudley has tried to restrict women’s access to abortion before by proposing an amendment to the constitution to include the right to life of the unborn child.

Her Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Amendment Bill was tabled in parliament in December 2017 and proposed showing ultrasound images of their fetuses to all women seeking abortions, along with mandatory counselling.

It introduced a requirement that for abortions between 13 and 20 weeks, a social worker and a doctor must agree that the pregnancy would significantly affect the socioeconomic circumstances of the woman concerned. It also sought to scrap provisions that permit third-trimester abortions if there is a risk of injury to fetuses.

When the bill was debated by parliament’s health committee in May, the ANC’s Fish Mahlalela said its proposals were unconstitutional as they would limit a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body and her reproductive health.

The World Health Organisation advised the department of health that the bill’s conditions for obtaining abortions were not evidence-based, were at odds with its guidelines, and would make it harder for women to have abortions.

The department of health’s Yogan Pillay said at the time that the bill’s proposals for mandatory counselling and ultrasound imaging were prohibitively expensive and would make it harder for women to safely end unwanted pregnancies.

While abortion in the state sector is free, services are patchy and many women still opt for dangerous illegal abortions. There were 105,358 abortions in public health facilities in 2016/2017, according to figures provided to Africa Check by the department of health.

The committee declared the bill undesirable, and it was rejected by the National Assembly on Tuesday.

"For this bill, it is the end of the road. But it achieved what I hoped it would," said Dudley.

"Discussions were held, and we are starting to learn as a country how to disagree more respectfully. This is a difficult issue and people do get worked up, but when I gave my declaration in the house it was sombre. There has been a big attempt by everyone to hear the other’s argument," she said.