Cape Town - A barrage of adverts pasted inside train carriages and other public spaces has raised alarm over the brazen provision of illegal abortions – even of pregnancies of up to eight months.
One “service provider”, who pasted a sticker inside a Metrorail carriage, promised women a 15-minute abortion for any foetus from “one week to eight months”.
When called by a Cape Times reporter who posed as a pregnant woman, the “doctor” said he could perform the abortion by administering two pills to the patient – one inserted in the mouth and one inside the vagina.
“It is very strong and there will be lots of bleeding,” he said.
When asked what would happen to the baby’s body after the abortion, he said: “Because of the strength of the medication, there won’t be a baby any more. It will be broken down by the medication. You will bleed heavily for three to four days.”
Brenda Bamuza-Mayundla, a professional nurse and regional manager for the Western Cape branch of Marie Stopes South Africa, said her organisation had been visited by several women who had fallen victim to this type of advertising.
She said the results of abortions by illegal providers lead to serious health complications “such as haemorrhage, septicemia, internal organ damage, tetanus, sterility, and in the most heartbreaking cases, even death”.
And, she added, some of these medical backstreet abortions also turned out to be ineffective.
Bamuza-Mayundla said many of their clients had previously opted to “quietly pay for a handful of tablets based on a questionable poster or website, only to find themselves out of pocket and with a continued unwanted pregnancy”.
According to South African law, any woman – irrespective of age – can get a legal abortion for an unwanted pregnancy before the 12-week mark.
From 13 to 20 weeks, the criteria become more stringent, and after 20 weeks circumstances have to be exceptional (for example, the mother’s life is under threat).
But medical abortions (which use medication rather than surgical procedures) can only take place in the first trimester, and during no phase of pregnancy is it legal for an unregistered entity to provide any type of abortion.
“Pregnant women should beware of anyone who offers to assist them with an abortion after a gestation of 20 weeks. This is a direct violation of the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act which governs safe abortion access,” said Bamuza-Mayundla.
According to Craig Househam, head of the Western Cape Department of Health, “There are people who are not practitioners who use medical means to terminate pregnancy, and this is highly illegal. If it turns out that the pills are just placebos, then it is fraud.”
He said the substance used in a medical abortion to induce delivery could only be administered safely in the first
trimester and only then in a proper health-care facility.
He said those who were registered were obliged to adhere to the terms of the act which provided for an intervention (a termination of pregnancy) that had its own inherent risks which must be measured against the risks of it not being carried out.
Registered doctors are answerable to the Health Professions Council of South Africa if they act outside the law. For those who are not registered doctors, however, the Department of Health would be limited in its capacity to act against the provision of illegal abortion services, said Househam.
Bamuza-Mayundla said, “As a professional nurse, I would expect to have my nursing licence revoked if I provided abortion services to a client over 20 weeks of pregnancy, and yet we see such ads pasted all over with no result.
“If I were to place an advert stating, ‘marijuana, cocaine and heroin cheap and easy, call Brenda’ and listed a mobile number, you can bet the authorities would come after me. The consequences need to be the same for illegal abortion providers.”
Providers of backstreet abortions also slip through the cracks of the law because women who have sought their assistance were afraid to come forward, said SAPS spokesman Colonel Tembinkosi Kinana.
“They are worried that they, too, will be held responsible, but we urge them to come forward.”
He said for police to take action “there has to be proof that the ‘service provider’ is not qualified, that their business is not credible or registered, and that they are performing these abortions”.
“We can only act on complaints and when a case has been opened there have to be specific details and people with evidence.”
He said nothing had been brought to the attention of the SAPS, possibly because the only people with actual evidence had played a role by requesting the service.
“People who have fallen victim to this situation must not hesitate to speak out about what has happened to them.”