It's an age old debate in many circles, and generally one that is sure to have an equal amount of pros and cons - the issue of abortion. I went to my usual Rotary meeting this week and we had a talk by the head of a NGO that was working in the field of women's reproductive issues and rights. He shared with us some practical experiences from the field that left everyone - men and women - quiet and reflective.
With a contraceptive prevalence rate estimated at 19% ( I googled and saw that this was in fact 25.3% in 2003) there are many unwanted pregnancies each year. From what I understand, in Ghana abortion can only be done if it poses significant danger, mental and or physical, to the mother or if the pregnancy results from rape or incest, or if the child will be born with serious mental and or physical deformities. Those set criteria, coupled with deeply seated religious beliefs means that girls and young women, who find themselves pregnant have little choice to find a safe alternative should they not want to have the child.
The speaker was not advocating for legalizing abortion. He wanted us instead to think about the options that many such women face, and what it meant in stark facts. The statistics on the number of women that died each year from unsafe, illegal abortions is not easily available as such procedures are not done by medical doctors, and even if so, not recorded. The traditional and home made connections that some women resort to puts them in even further danger, many resorting to seek medical help when it is far too late.
The incident that struck me most however was where he mentioned in some traditional and remote villages, chiefs could still literally point at a young girl - 16, 17 or 18 - and demand by custom that this becomes his wife. Usually these men are considerably older and therefore it is not uncommon to find these young women widowed by the time they are 22 or 23. Custom also demands that they cannot remarry or have children by other men, and where this happens is punishable. What options then does the young woman have should she become pregnant?
It made me think about the right to choose. I guess the right to choose is not just in the act of terminating a pregnancy, but the right to choose at so many stages before one even gets pregnant. It's choosing who you sleep with, it's choosing whether to use a condom or not, it's choosing whether you can use contraceptives or not. Sometimes I think we forget that a woman's right to choose in any of these things will be determined by a number of factors, some of which she has little control over - be they social, religious, economic. Until we realize that we need to address the causes of the problems and not just the outcomes then we will always be faced with the dilemma.
I look at my daughter, thankful that I can choose and happy with my choices.