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Abortion on demand becomes available in South Africa

February 1, 1997

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ High school student Princess Dlamini never wanted an abortion. But there she was, fighting back tears, waiting to end her pregnancy Saturday, the first day abortion became available on demand in South Africa.

``I do not know where the father is. I am in my last year of school. I have no choice,″ said Dlamini, 21, who temporarily dropped out of school to give birth to a son when she was 16 because the law did not allow abortions.

The new law provoked widespread demonstrations in a country where many, both black and white, come from conservative, religious backgrounds.

``As nurses, we have made a pledge to save lives,″ said Margerie Sithole, a nurse at Baragwanath hospital, where Dlamini and a few other women waited. ``But women come here with their uteruses in tatters after back-street abortions. My feelings are very divided.″

Until Saturday, abortions were only allowed under circumstances such as rape or incest.

New legislation, passed in November, allows abortion on demand until the 12th week of pregnancy. Thereafter, it is available in certain cases, such as when continued pregnancy would endanger the safety of the mother or fetus.

Although anti-abortion groups have issued statements comparing abortion to murder, there were no protests Saturday.

At Johannesburg’s Baragwanath hospital, in the black township of Soweto, Dlamini and a dozen other women sat quietly on plastic chairs, waiting to be seen by the one available doctor.

All were eventually turned away with the explanation that staff would not be available for abortions until Monday.

Hospitals across the country are bracing themselves for a rush of women seeking to end their pregnancies.

The National Health Department estimates there will be from 250 to 500 abortions per 1,000 live births, which at Baragwanath will translate into 120-250 abortion requests per week.

``We are not prepared for that. We don’t even have counseling available yet,″ Sithole said. In certain rural areas, there are still no centers equipped to perform abortions.

The National Health Department also has had difficulty persuading medical staff, many of whom oppose abortion on religious or ethical grounds, to perform the operation.

Two hospitals in Pretoria announced Friday that they would not be able to perform abortions because most of their staff objected.

The new law does not force staff to perform abortions, but it is a criminal offense to not refer patients to someone who is willing.

Health Department spokeswoman Helen Rees said about 45,000 women are admitted to hospitals every year with botched abortions. Of those, about 420 die.

``This legislation recognizes that you cannot impact on women’s health unless you allow women access to termination,″ Rees said. ``If we can succeed here, it is a breakthrough for women in Africa.″

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