Referred to by lawmakers as the, ‘voluntary interruption of pregnancy’ abortion is a delicate problem which exists in our society. It is made worse by the fact that it’s an act carried out by the majority of female youth.
Research shows that in Rwanda at least 17 percent of women between the ages of 14 and 25 years have at least secretly aborted once in their life.
In Rwanda, abortion is judged as murder on the ground that it kills the unborn. Culturally, it’s still considered a taboo and politicians don’t seem to have the will to solve this problem. Today, imprisonment is the only solution provided by the law to deter abortion.
Articles 164 to 169 of the draft bill of the Penal Code follow the same philosophy. Apart from reducing prison time, the law refuses any kind of exception even in cases of rape.
However, the intolerance of the Rwandan Penal legislation has not prevented and will not prevent abortions from happening. In fact this intolerant behavior remains one of the main reasons why women continue to abort.
Additionally, the abortion sentence is double discrimination; it strikes hard and it also marginalizes women with a below average standard of living.
We cannot overlook the fact that only the wealthy, educated and intellectual women can afford to visit a gynecologist, pay for their time and even better, reduce their health risks before they can walk away with pain relieving medication.
This implies that a fraction of our population has a right to healthcare because of their economic status, while others have lost this right because of the influence the Penal Code has on abortion.
There is no need for misinterpretation in this opinion. I neither support abortion, nor do I agree with imprisonment as the panacea for reducing abortions and its consequences.
However, I am proposing social dialogue for this so called crime. Importantly, such debate must have the input of the first victims of concern-- the young women.
Abortion as a natural crime
Contrary to some lines of thought, abortion is not a natural crime. The perception of abortion as a socially prohibited act varies in time and in space. As a crime, abortion is not indisputable and universal.
For instance, in Rwanda, before the invasion of the Christian culture, the “Kinyandaro” was considered as a curse on the country and punishable by “kujyanwa ku karwa.” This means that clandestine abortion was the last solution for sparing the life of a girl.
In other words, Rwandans were more concerned by the virginity of their girls than the life of the fetus.
In Muslim countries, the jurists do not have the same position on abortion act. The “Suna” or the Islamic doctrine, gives different points of view based on when the Holy Spirit comes into the fetus for justifying the moment when the abortion may be allowed or prohibited.
In Western legislation, the rules related to “voluntary abortion” vary in each country. However most of these countries prefer to acknowledge first the rights of the mother through the right of choice, in accepting the “decriminalization” of voluntary abortion under the legal frame.
There is a permanent confusion which exists between “decriminalizing” an act and “legalizing” an act. To decriminalize an act is to scrap it off the list of acts incriminated by the law, but does not mean to authorize people to commit or legalize the act.
In fact, what is not prohibited by criminal law is not necessarily accepted socially. For instance, adultery only indicts the married while the singles, divorced and widows are not concerned by the crime.
There are numerous causes which push young women to abort. Firstly, Rwanda’s criminal law is rigid on abortion. In fact, in our country only therapeutic abortion may be authorized and only after a long legal procedure.
Secondly, the breakdown of the Rwandan family frames after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi came with disastrous consequences.
Many women still live in total insecurity, because they are not shielded under the family frame.
Abortion is also a result of social pressure; the status quo of “single mother” remains hardly acceptable by our society. This only permits women to escape the social disgrace by aborting.
Furthermore, psychological conditions after rape, abandonment and betrayal from the father of a child make it impossible to keep the unborn baby.
Penal Code reform
Abortion is not an “affair of women” like some dare to say. It is a social problem which needs a social debate because it silently kills and ‘paralyses’ hundreds of young women in our midst.
Whenever we discuss the nature of the crime - abortion and the means needed for limiting it, various aspects have to be put into consideration.
Consider radical opinions like the ‘anti-abortion movement,’ which completely rejects any kind of abortion and confuse it as an act of homicide. According to this movement, the life of the fetus is independent from that of the “surrogate mother.”
Therefore, a mother has the natural simple mission of feeding and covering the embryo till birth. In other words, the woman is a “garden” where the men are at liberty to sow their seeds in order to increase the human race.
Such an opinion becomes criminal under circumstances of rape, because the Rwandan woman is obliged to safeguard a fetus sowed by a rapist without question. Such views should be unacceptable since it leaves Rwandan women with no say.
Another opinion considers a fetus like an entire part of the woman body. Therefore, if a mother does not feel free with the fetus, she has the right to remove the embryo.
However, such can no longer be accepted in our society because the embryo ‘Imvunja,’ is ‘life’ which will one day become human.
Lastly, women are given ownership of their actions when they abort. The mantra is that, “If a woman decides to abort and succumbs to her act, it’s because she was ready for the consequences.”
This line of thought considers women to not be like gardens where some men can sow their seeds neither does it consider abortion lightly. It leaves pregnant women with the responsibility, to take charge of their lives.
Even though women are not at liberty to remove an unborn child like a thorn stuck in their bodies, the “voluntary interruption of pregnancy,” under the penal code should at least reform and give women the choice to weigh their chances of survival and sustainability before they are locked behind bars.
The author is an International legal expert and University lecturer