“HOW FAR are you?” he asked.
“Then it’s fine. I’ll take care of you.”
“Is it painful?”
After a six-week investigation, Wits Vuvuzela had this telephone exchange with a man who offers illegal abortions, even when pregnancies have advanced beyond the legal cut-off. He refused to give his name and place of work but offered to meet at Park Station.
“Backstreet” abortions have been a cause of medical concern. Yet even now, street pole charlatans provide dangerous abortions, which could cause women to lose their lives or their ability to have children. These services are widely advertised in the Johannesburg CBD, at stations, on stop signs and buildings.
The Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act protects a woman’s right to choose and allows women to access safe abortion services at legitimate clinics and hospitals. Abortion is offered free at any government hospital or clinic. Legally, any woman, whatever her age, can have an abortion if she is still in the first trimester (12 weeks).
It is only legal to have an abortion after this if her physical or mental health is at stake, the baby will have severe mental or physical abnormalities or if she is pregnant because of incest or rape. However, this can only be done before the pregnancy has reached 20 weeks (five months). After this cut-off, it is illegal to perform or have an abortion.
An ex-UJ student, who asked not to be named for fear of legal and social repercussions, suffered damage to her cervix and uterine wall after undergoing a backstreet abortion way past the legal 20-week gestation period.
Enrolled as a Media Studies major, the woman was forced to take a “time-out” from school due to the physical and mental after-effects she suffered.
“I was scared and on a bursary and I could not afford to disappoint my family.” She had delayed the termination, thinking she would keep the baby, while her boyfriend was around. Once he disappeared, her pregnancy had advanced beyond the legal limit.
“I saw a flyer at Park Station and I secretly took the number. They promised a safe and cheap abortion so my mind was made.”
She was given an array of pills “for pain”. The “midwife” used a tool which she described as “very cold and hard” and then she felt a sharp pain. Feeling a “warm fluid”, she assumed the worst was over – until it became apparent this fluid was blood, which wouldn’t stop.
She bled heavily for seven days, suffering intense abdominal pain, until an aunt forced her to go to a clinic.
Another young woman is said to have committed suicide as a result of the mental trauma she suffered after an illegal abortion. A friend, who asked not to be named since out of sensitivity for her friend’s family, said the woman was never the same after her abortion.
Having received a tip-off, Wits Vuvuzela visited a building where unlicensed abortions are said to take place, three blocks from Park Station, adjacent to a taxi rank.
The stairs reeked of urine and rotting garbage.
Lighting was scarce on the winding staircase and loud music blared from apartments on different floors.
When our reporter knocked, a woman appeared behind a steel security door and asked if she had an appointment. The reporter pretended to be lost and left.
From the room, a metallic smell mingled with something that smelt like hard liquor.
According to Marie Stopes South Africa (MSSA), an organisation which specialises in sexual and reproductive healthcare, the drug sometimes used for medical abortions, Cytotech, is easily acquired. If administered incorrectly, it could cause hemorrhaging and rupturing of the uterus, said Andrea Thompson, head of clientele at Marie Stopes Organisation.
“Women should be wary of anyone offering medical abortion pills without providing a consultation and an exam to determine their gestation (stage of the pregnancy).”
If administered wrongly, the pill could have severe consequences, including death, she said.
Even though it is legal to have an abortion, no questions asked, Wits and UJ students told Wits Vuvuzela they avoided the health sector because of the judgement they faced there.
Wits Vuvuzela went to Hillbrow Clinic to posing as a woman in need of an abortion. The security guard at the entrance asked every patient their destination.
This forced her to disclose this in front of 25 people. She was treated unsympathetically by a nurse, whose face registered disapproval until the journalist said she had reconsidered and would not go through with the abortion.