Malawi Publishes Contents of Abortion Bill

Doctors, Studies agree: Abortion Law Reform is needed in Malawi to protect women's safety

Journalists listen to proceedings during the orientation workshop in Salima on the Termination of Pregnancy Bill.

The Malawi government has officially released the contents of the Termination of Pregnancy Bill (TOP)to all members of Parliament, including the Speaker. The Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Health, local universities and libraries also received contents of the bill.

The bill is tabled in this session of Parliament and awaits Cabinet review and approval. MPs, civil society leaders, the faith community, and the general public have been asking about the whereabouts of the bill.

“Yes, it’s true. The bill is out and this is a big step of progress towards ensuring the safety of our beloved women, and again this is a possible set back to the face of church leaders who demonstrated. Government leaders were angry. They don’t like demonstrations. Government pleaded with them not to demonstrate and suggested open dialogue instead. They never listened,” a source at Capitol Hill told reporters.

Former Minister of Information, Communication, and Technology Malison Ndau is on record stating just last year that there is no such bill at either the Cabinet or Parliamentary level. This is contradictory to events that transpired at the same time; specifically, that the reports on the review of the bill were going through printing after the Special Law Commission concluded its findings.

The Malawi government released that statement after some religious groups had taken to the streets demanding that government should reject calls of possible law reforms on abortion. This clarifies earlier reports that the Malawi government was not happy with demonstrators on Dec. 6, 2016, when they marched against the bill.

”Government wishes to dismiss categorically claims that there is an abortion bill ready for debate in the National Assembly. The truth of the matter is that the law commission has developed a report and made recommendations to government to adopt a new law on abortion,” part of the statement read.

However, Acting Chairperson Sim Sikwese of the Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion said recently during a two-day media orientation workshop in Salima, that the release of the bill will help Malawians understand the full scope of the bill.

”The report offers an opportunity for the public to appreciate content of the bill and this will ultimately correct the misconception,” Sikwese said.

Sikwese said Malawi has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with a significant percentage of those deaths due to unsafe abortion.

”Unsafe abortion is the second leading cause of pregnancy-related mortality in Malawi accounting to 18 percent of all maternal deaths and is the leading cause of obstetric complications,” Sikwese said.

A current abortion report, released by the College of Medicine and Guttmacher in New York, indicates that in 2015 alone, 141,000 abortion cases were registered. The report also indicates that there are 900,000 pregnancies yearly, where 470,000 are unwanted. This translates into 2,500 pregnancies per day, which means that 105 Malawian women become pregnant each hour.

Malawi set up a law committee under Section 132 of the Constitution that provides for necessary law reform to Malawi’s current abortion practices. This established the special Law Commission on Review on Abortion in 2013 and they concluded their findings in 2015. The report that was released is dated March 2016.

The commissioners who worked on the report and the TOP bill include representatives from the judiciary branch, the Ministry of Health, the Episcopal Conference of Malawi Catholic Church, Malawi Law Society, the Muslim Association of Malawi, the University of Malawi, the Ministry Justice, and the Malawi Council on Churches.

Health experts agree that it is definitely time to review the current abortion law while considering the recommendation of the Africa Union through the African Protocol on Women’s Rights, and the Maputo Plan of Action, which sets out guidelines for reproductive health.

Currently Malawi is one of the countries in the world with the highest maternal mortality rate with 17 percent of deaths attributed to unsafe abortion.

Statistics also indicate that almost half of the women seen for post abortion care are younger than 25 years with only four out of five married.

Some shocking statistics

Recent studies done by the University of Malawi, with support from the Guttmacher Institute in New York, has revealed that approximately 141,000 induced abortions occurred in Malawi in 2015 alone. So women are accessing abortion, just not in the safest possible ways. This translates to a national rate of 38 abortions per 1,000 women, aged 15 to 49.

An estimated 886,161 unintended pregnancies occurred in 2015. This comprised 609,177 births, 135,940 miscarriages, and 141,044 abortions.  This translates to an overall pregnancy rate of 238 pregnancies per 1,000 women, aged between 15 and 49 nationally. The unintended pregnancy rate was 126 per 1,000 women, aged 15 to 49, with the northern region registering more cases than the other two.

The northern region registered 61 percent of the abortion cases, southern region 39 percent and central region 29 percent. The research study also revealed that central region had highest intake of induced abortion post-care treatment at 39.2 percent, southern region 37.2 percent and northern region 23.6 percent.

Overall, 53 percent of pregnancies in Malawi were unintended, and of all those unintended pregnancies, 30 percent ended in abortion. Among all pregnancies in Malawi, an estimated 16 percent ended in abortion, 15 percent in miscarriage, 30 percent in unintended birth, and 39 percent in intended birth, the research findings indicate.

“Restrictive abortion laws do not stop abortions from occurring, they just drive it underground, forcing women to resort to clandestine procedures which are often unsafe,” said Dr. Chisale Mhango, the former Director of the Reproductive Health Services in the Ministry of Health in Malawi.

“Every law has good reason for it. Abortion law is designed to prevent women from dying from unsafe abortions by discouraging them from having abortion. Unfortunately the law is not working.  The law has not discouraged women from accessing unsafe abortion. They continue to have unsafe abortions.”

He said there is a public-health need for the country to emulate other countries in their approach to abortion. This only ensures that women do not die from unsafe abortions and if needed, women have access to post-care treatment if necessary.

“We in the medical profession – our responsibility is to eliminate unnecessary deaths. And death from abortion is unnecessary. It can be prevented and other countries have prevented it. We do not have to reinvent the wheel on this one, but instead do what our colleagues have done to prevent deaths from abortion by providing more options for women to access safe abortion procedures,” he said.

Dr. Chelsea Polis, a senior researching scientist at Guttmacher said that helping Malawian women avoid unintended pregnancy is also a key component to reducing the abortion rate.

“Helping Malawian women avoid unintended pregnancy is critical to reducing the incidence of abortion and the complications and deaths that often follow unsafe, clandestine procedures. Our study found that in 2015, more than half of all pregnancies in Malawi were unintended, and almost one-third of those unintended pregnancies ended in abortion.”

These researchers have since recommended the strengthening of Malawi’s family planning programs to ensure that all Malawians can use their preferred contraceptive methods correctly and consistently to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies; therefore, reducing the need for abortion. They also noted the importance of continued expansion of post-care services so that every woman who experiences complications from an unsafe abortion can get the care she needs.

The research study was funded by UK Government, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation.

Restrictive abortion laws and policies have been forcing woman and girls to seek unsafe abortion services from untrained people within the country. To treat the results of these unsafe practices, this annually costs between $300,000 and $500,000.