Picture a young woman writhing in a grassy ditch alongside Latchmore Road in Harare’s Mabelreign, her thin arms either flailing in the air or clutching her lower belly.
Legs raised wide apart she thrashes in desperation, gnashing her teeth and growling as wave after wave of pain shook her small frame.
Helpless women stood there trying to figure out what to do. Eventually they managed to establish that the young woman was about five months pregnant and was on her way to church for prayers. After a while and more screaming, a small pink mass eventually comes out of her.
That was the scene last week and speaks of the delicate situation Zimbabwe finds itself in. The fight between advocates of liberal abortion laws and those for the fetus’ right to life has raised some serious questions on sexual reproductive health rights as well as a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her body.
Anti-abortion crusaders agitate for the curtailing of access to abortion, while prochoice proponents maintain that the termination of pregnancy (ToP) should be widened to ensure more women can safely terminate in the presence of qualified personnel.
It is no secret that Zimbabwe is one of the countries with a high burden of teen pregnancies, many of which end in illegal abortion.
Most of these abortions are done out of financial considerations, particularly for the poor school going young women.
Women of poorer backgrounds are more likely to seek abortions because socio-economic concerns are among the top reasons to end a pregnancy.
A woman with financial means can afford high-quality reproductive care and its connected costs, like travelling to a provider or paying for the procedure. It is women who have less money and less job security, or live in rural areas, far from providers, who would be most affected by the State’s limitations.
This brings in the issue of a just and fair society. It is apparent the playing field is tipped towards those with the means, while the other woman has to be content with backdoor concoctions which include washing powder, disinfectants and having unsterilised blunt objects shoved into their wombs.
The young woman in Mabelreign almost lost her life trying to terminate her pregnancy using unorthodox means. This was because no woman in Zimbabwe can just walk into a clinic and demand an abortion. She needs to be granted a court or medical report to that effect.
The ToP specifies that only rape survivors and those whose lives are at risk, as determined by a doctor, can access abortion, while the rest are forced to keep the pregnancy.
But even these are not entirely safe because the process to get permission is cumbersome and many have actually been forced to carry the pregnancies to full term.
A classic example is that of the Chegutu fuel attendant who was gang raped and after falling pregnant failed to get the order to terminate on time. So the law actually did not work now, did it. She sued and won the case.
Putting restrictions on abortion has actually fuelled backdoor surgeries which, unfortunately, are contributing a third of the maternal deaths in the country.
That close to 70 000 illegal abortions are carried out yearly is cause for concern and warrants open-minded discussions void of moralistic perceptions.
Sexual reproductive health rights will remain incomplete for as long as the debate on abortion is still considered a high- wire act often guided by ethical, moral and religious reasons than glaring facts.
Challenges to these restrictive laws typically call for affirming a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her body.
Discussions on whether fetuses are humans and whether they deserve rights distract from the core issue of when a pregnant person’s right to terminate a pregnancy outweighs a fetus’ right to life.