A recent study by gynaecologists at the College of Medicine and US-based Guttimacher Institute shows almost 141 000 pregnancies in 2015 ended in clandestine abortions. Unsafe abortions claim lives of up to 18 in every 100 Malawian women who die of pregnancy-related complications. Our Features Editor JAMES CHAVULA asks presidential adviser on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) Mavuto Bamusi what President Peter Mutharika makes of the silent killer and a contentious push to relax the country’s abortion laws.
: Women are dying while terminating pregnancies clandestinely although the Penal Code outlaws abortion except when a woman’s life is in danger. As presidential adviser, what do you make of this irony?
: The direction that government is taking is that we must scale up initiatives on issues of maternal health. You know we are coming out of a situation where Malawi has been losing a lot of women due to unsafe abortions and associated complications during pregnancy. So, the role of the civil society organisations is to work hand in hand with government in making sure that we do not lose mothers and women due to pregnancy complications. This is what even President Peter Mutharika has been repeating time and again that we must no longer lose women, that we must continue to safeguard the life of women and that maternal health should be improved. The same issue has been embraced by the First Lady Gertrude Mutharika. As an active member of Organisation of African First Ladies [Oafla] on HIV and Aids, her responsibility also extends to preventing maternity deaths. The First Lady as well as the President has an interest in promoting child rights.
: What is the first couple’s position on the push to relax the country’s restrictive abortion laws?
: We have to strike a balance. Government has an obligation to ensure that rights of children are safeguarded and that women do not die needlessly. At the same time, we have the civil society and system that does not condone unsafe abortion. We have a society that promotes rights of women and good health for mothers and women during delivery. Now the fundamental role that civil society has is to hold hands with government and ensure these aspirations are met. The civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations have responsibility to engage in dialogue with the Ministry of Health and other stakeholders. So the civil society is the driving force in this issue of abortion. But at the end of the day, we must all make sure that the right to life, which is a fundamental right in the Constitution of Malawi, is protected. The third responsibility that civil society has is to conduct research and also disseminate proper and right information in as far as the issue of abortion is concerned.
: What direction is government taking following recommendations from the Special Law Commission on Review of Abortion Laws in 2015?
: The direction government is taking in view of the recommendations from Malawi Law Commission is that the law on termination
of pregnancy is not changing at the moment. But what is being done is simply to add additional grounds for allowing abortions or for not allowing abortions. These are additional grounds for ensuring that any abortion which happens is safe. These grounds will enable us to further protect the life of mothers during pregnancy. Sometimes, there is misconception or misinformation that President Mutharika is encouraging abortion. That is not the case.
: So, what is the case?
: The case is that the government of Peter Mutharika would like to enhance maternal rights, but also to further reduce maternal deaths and decrease complications that are associated with pregnancies. This is fundamental in the country in as far as promoting human rights and safe motherhood is concerned. Like I said, the civil society has a critical role to play in balancing the conflicting interests and also to give out correct information to Malawians.
: On December 6 last year, some people petitioned the President not to allow proposed moves to relax abortion laws. If you had three minutes with the President, what advice would you give President Mutharika?
: Our advice is based on proper research and not mere emotions. The advice will be based on the reality on the ground that women are taking unsafe abortions. However, the President is listening to both sides. Those that are against abortion, the President is listening to them. Those that are for safe abortion, the President is listening to them. At the end of the day, President Mutharika will make a decision that is in the best interest of Malawians. However, let me underscore that President Mutharika respects the Constitution. So the ultimate decision is that if the draft Termination of Pregnancy Bill reaches his desk, the President shall make a decision based on what is in the best interest of Malawians.
: Some campaigners are concerned that the law review is slow and that policymakers are shunning this controversial issue because it has some political connotations and may make political elites lose votes. Is this going to eliminate unsafe abortion in Malawi?
: Government, especially that of Peter Mutharika, does not politicise these matters. This is the issue of maternal health. The view that the review process is delaying in order to balance the political situation can be taken as mere perceptions. Any policy or law review takes reasonable time. So, whatever time is taking right now can be described as reasonable time investing into such an issue that is controversial and politically sticky. Government will take a balancing approach in managing this issue. Let me hasten to caution other players who always rush to politicise anything. So let us leave politics out of this debate over abortion laws. Let us not politicise issues to do with maternal health. We must simply treat them as issues of matters of safe motherhood and women’s health. n