Picture: 123RF/PUHHHA
Picture: 123RF/PUHHHA

The government said on Tuesday that it is concerned about the funding of anti-abortion campaigners by US lobby groups, saying they are violating SA laws.

The SA constitution gives women the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

A nine-month investigation published by the global news organisation openDemocracy on Tuesday has exposed how US anti-abortion groups are actively discouraging women from having abortions in countries around the world, including SA.

Their activities in the country are at odds with the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, which prohibits “directed counselling”, said the health department’s deputy director-general for communicable and non-communicable diseases, Yogan Pillay. “We are very concerned. We didn’t realise there were so many of these organisations funded from outside SA. We should be doing everything we can to protect our own legislation.” 

Undercover journalists working on openDemocracy’s investigation identified a global network of “pregnancy crisis centres” funded by the Ohio-based Heartbeat International and Virginia-based Human Life International that are providing women with false and misleading information about abortions. Both groups also oppose contraception.

In Italy, an undercover reporter was told that an abortion can cause cancer and that having a baby can cure serious illness, while in SA a reporter was told that if she had an abortion she could be murdering a future president. The SA investigation also found two non-profit organisations (NPOs) funded by Heartbeat International working inside government health facilities.

Heartbeat International supports 70 “pregnancy help centres” in SA, run by Africa Cares for Life, according to its website.

Pillay said the health department will investigate the issues exposed by openDemocracy, and urged the public to report organisations that are breaking the law to the relevant authorities, such as the Health Professions Council of SA.

“We can only intervene if a complaint is laid with us,” he said.

Lack of government help

Marion Stevens, director of the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition, said Heart Beat International’s extensive activities in SA exposed the paucity of government services.

“The government is reneging on its responsibilities and relying on NPOs. There is such a desperate demand for counselling and mental health services that anyone can pop up and offer services in a clinic or regional hospital,” she said.

NPOs are required to register with the department of social development, but the health department is not actively scrutinising their activities, she said. “There is very little commitment and stewardship from the health department.” 

Pillay said the government was trying to improve both contraceptive and abortion services. Several companies were seeking registration for generic mifepristone products with the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority, and government hoped competition would ultimately drive down the price of the pills. Currently Medi Challenge is the only company that has a mifepristone product registered with the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority.

UPDATE February 12 2020
This story has been updated. An earlier version quoted Pillay saying a generic version of mifepristone was already available in SA. He subsequently amended his comments.