Backstreet abortions a first choice for many

Cape Town - Pregnant women are resorting to emergency contraceptives and herbal remedies to perform abortions at home, a UCT study has found.

The study, by the university’s Women’s Health Research Unit, also found almost 16 percent of women who had abortions in their second trimester had tried illegal backstreet abortions, using tablets.

Women are opting to consult abortionists operating outside the medical system. Photo: Candice Mostert. Credit: Candice Mostert

Of almost 700 women who had second-trimester abortions at four provincial hospitals from April until August 2010, 17 percent had initially attempted to terminate the pregnancy at home using unsafe methods.

Researchers described the statistic as significant, given South Africa’s liberal abortion law and the widespread availability of abortion centres in urban areas. The Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act, which legalised abortion, was introduced in 1996 to counter the rising number of illegal and unsafe abortions.

In the study, published in the latest issue of SA Medical Journal, researchers found that of almost 200 women interviewed, about 53 percent had taken a herbal product. The product label cautions against its use during pregnancy and by children under the age of 14.

Researchers found that 15.6 percent of women interviewed had used an illegal backstreet abortionist. About 19 percent had used medications, including emergency contraceptives or antibiotics, while 6.2 percent tried to induce abortion by “smoking a lot”.

One of the women interviewed reported that a backstreet abortionist had given her three tablets to take at home. After two phone calls between them, the abortionist had disappeared.

Another respondent had been turned away from a health facility because she had arrived too late to be seen. Disappointed, she paid R1 600 for tablets from a backstreet abortionist, but these did not terminate the pregnancy. She then visited the public sector abortion centre.

Researchers noted that the country continued to face problems with unsafe and self-induced abortions at a “relatively high rate”.

According to the Saving Mothers’ report, between 2002 and 2007 unsafe abortions accounted for about 3.5 percent of maternal deaths.

The UCT research revealed that self-induced abortion was most common among unemployed women and those speaking indigenous languages. These women were also likely to present late for the first ultrasound scan.

Researchers suggested that heightened stigma around abortion, cultural beliefs and reliance on self-medication could be factors that aggravated self-induced abortion outside the formal health care sector.

Deborah Constant, lead researcher, said while the methods used by the women in the study were not necessarily harmful, “these practices potentially have harmful consequences”. Failed attempts might have delayed the women’s seeking an abortion until the second trimester, “associated with an increased risk of complication”.