Just when one began to think that the world has enough problems, the dispute about abortion has been re-opened. This year it is 50 years since the sensational American Supreme Court ruling that found that the state does not have the right to prevent women from having abortions, subject to certain conditions.

Norma McCorvey, known in court proceedings under her pseudonym Jane Roe, was pregnant with her third child and wanted to have an abortion – something that was against the laws of her home state, Texas. Her lawyers filed a case on her behalf in federal court against Texas’ attorney general, Henry Wade. (Hence “Roe versus Wade”).

A three-judge panel found the law banning abortion in Texas to be unconstitutional. An appeal was made to the US Supreme Court, which on January 22, 1973 upheld the federal court’s finding. Abortion was henceforth found to be a constitutional right of women; federal states no longer had the power to refuse (have) abortions.

It was a turning point ruling that decisively influenced the public debate in the USA and often caused large-scale controversy. Hence the upset that the recent reversal of the Roe v Wade ruling brought about.

The echo of Roe v Wade resounds world-wide, including in South Africa. Before 1996, this country had one of the most draconian conservative abortion laws. One of the first acts of the Parliament of the new South Africa was to replace this conservative legislation with the so-called “Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Law”). It has moved our abortion dispensation from draconianly conservative to one of the most liberal dispensations in the world. This makes abortion on request mandatory for all practical purposes up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, especially because a pregnant woman who wants to undergo early trimester abortions only has to prove that continued pregnancy will harm her economically. There is also no age limit or duty to accept the advice of counselling, required for a woman who (wants) to undergo an abortion in the first two trimesters.

There are strong arguments, which cannot be discussed now, on both sides. Abortion seems, for many people, like calculated murder of the most defenseless among us. Many health professionals, especially doctors, refuse to execute the procedure. Still, as far as I’m concerned, the scale is tipping in favor of the pro-choice group. Abortion does not terminate conscious life, especially if it occurs early. A fetus whose central nervous system lineage has not yet developed, does not have the capacity to experience pain, let alone conscious life.

In addition, a “pro-life” position causes the horrible phenomenon of backstreet abortions. Very serious is also the fact that, due to severe socio-economic conditions, young girls become pregnant on a large scale – often as a result of male power exercise, often without them understanding what is happening to them. However, the main pro-choice argument is the right of women to bodily integrity, and therefore to their own, authentic choices to end pregnancies. I well remember a prominent gynecologist who was strongly opposed to abortion all his life, but who changed his position precisely because of the tragedy of young girls who are the victims of young people’s ignorance and inexperience. This does not mean abortions on demand are never morally problematic. I think one should always have respect for a fetus. However, this does not imply that one may never terminate a fetus. Women have been victims of gender-based violence enough. A woman is, as the Dutch say, “boss in her own belly”


Anton van Niekerk