Zambia is home to some of the world’s most liberal abortion laws, but the practice is increasingly controversial. Recent years have seen a number of legal challenges and growing hostility in the country.
In 1972, eight years after Zambia had received its independence from British colonialism, the Termination of Pregnancy Act made abortion permissible with few stipulations. Yet, in recent years access to abortion has been challenged on several fronts.
Zambia was declared a Christian country in 1991 despite opposition from Muslim, Hindu, and some Christian groups. In 2016, only low voter turnout prevented passage of a new Zambian Bill of Rights which would have declared that “the right to life begins at conception.”
Despite the legality of the practice, abortions often happen in the shadows, often in informal medical centers. The current law allows medical professionals who have conscientious objections to the procedure to abstain from the practice. The majority of Zambians oppose abortion on traditional and moral grounds. However, many accept the legality of the procedure in specific circumstances. Many Zambians already believe that that abortion is illegal in the country. “I know that what I am doing is wrong and probably sinful, but I personally feel this is necessary. I wouldn’t want people to make the same choices I have made in life. Abortion is wrong, but I have made choices that have required this,” a young woman in Zambia told this author on the day of her visit to an abortion clinic. Clearly exhausted, she tried to sound upbeat while confiding this is not her first visit.
“I use the birth-control pill and am aware that it is an abortifacient. I have tried telling myself that it’s just medicine that will help my ‘stomach-ache’ go away but to be honest, I know what I am doing. The drugs I am given actually make me feel ill and confuse my menstrual cycle. So, I choose to not know what else the pills are doing to my body because I need to keep taking them.”
Much foreign aid is spent giving greater access to contraception and options for abortion in poor communities. The implicit message directed at these people is this: if an entire generation of children born into poverty can be eradicated, multi-generational cycles of poverty will be brought to an abrupt end.
“Without a comprehensive approach, unsafe abortion will continue.”
Marie Stopes, an international NGO which operates in Zambia, claims to have prevented 44,334 unsafe abortions and 109,030 unintended pregnancies in 2018. This number exclusively accounts for what they call ‘unsafe’ and ‘unintended’ abortions. Unsafe abortions are defined as those without proper legal procedures or medical procedure.
“Without a comprehensive approach, unsafe abortion will continue,” says Jonas Chanda, an MP with the Patriotic Front party who heads the parliamentary committee on health.“The future of Zambia lies in its young population, anything done to prevent unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion is ideal. We want data-driven statistics on unsafe abortions, and this will make it easy for us to advocate and convince our colleagues in parliament. We will be speaking the loudest in parliament in regards to issues of sexual reproductive health.”
Although many Zambians dispute the legitimacy of a permissible law on abortion, government officials affirm that the law exists to protect women from fatalities and mental health disorders, caused by either childbirth or unsafe abortions.
“Abortion in Zambia is a symptom of a morally complacent society, and that complacency is a result of not having an understanding of moral absolutes that provide a standard of what is either wrong and right and why things are that way. I believe that a person who is unable to consider the moral implications of an evil act is more dangerous than another who intentionally justifies breaking a known moral standard,” said Musunga Mwansa, a Christian social activist.
As one of the founders of a movement called, Save the Unborn, Musunga’s theological and political convictions drive him to stay involved in pro-life work. As one of the leaders of Zambia’s first active pro-life movement, he and many other Zambians are eager to see abortion ended in the country. But, with more than 1 million HIV cases and the looming COVID-19 crisis, others in Zambia may feel there are more pressing health concerns.