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Of abortion, values and the law | Malawi Nyasa Times

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“Here is the trap you are in…. And it’s not my trap—I haven’t trapped you. Because abortions are illegal, women who need and want them have no choice in the matter, and you—because you know how to perform them—have no choice, either. What has been violated here is your freedom of choice, and every woman’s freedom of choice, too. If abortion was legal, a woman would have a choice—and so would you. You could feel free not to do it because someone else would. But the way it is, you’re trapped. Women are trapped. Women are victims, and so are you.” ― John Irving, The Cider House Rules.

I so truly believe that an imaginary circle of empathy is drawn by each person. All of us.

Generally, this circumscribes the person at some distance, and corresponds to those things in the world that deserve empathy.

To be brutally honest, I like the term “empathy” because it has spiritual overtones. A term like “sympathy” or “allegiance” might be more precise, but I want the chosen term to be slightly mystical, to suggest that we might not be able to fully understand what goes on between us and others, that we should leave open the possibility that the relationship can’t be represented in a digital database.

If someone falls within your circle of empathy, you wouldn’t want to see him or her killed – Something that is clearly outside the circle is fair game. For instance, most people would place all other people within the circle – but most of us are willing to see bacteria killed when we brush our teeth, and certainly don’t worry when we see an inanimate rock tossed aside to keep a trail clear.

The tricky part is that some entities reside close to the edge of the circle.

The deepest controversies often involve whether something or someone should lie just inside or just outside the circle. For instance, the idea of slavery depends on the placement of the slave outside the circle, to make some people nonhuman.

Widening the circle to include all people and end slavery has been one of the epic strands of the human story – and it isn’t quite over yet.

A great many other controversies fit well in the model. The fight over abortion asks whether a foetus or embryo should be in the circle or not, and the animal rights debate asks the same about animals.

When you change the contents of your circle, you change your conception of yourself. The centre of the circle shifts as its perimeter is changed. The liberal impulse is to expand the circle, while conservatives tend to want to restrain or even contract the circle.

Empathy inflation and metaphysical ambiguity, it is then.

Just few months ago, the debate on abortion laws in Malawi was the most controversial, and one that had thrown the whole nation into a state of contention with a public unfolding of stark differences in opinions.

The juxtaposition was not only striking, but, in fact, was and still, is unjustifiably divisive.

What was lost in the whole argument was the fact that up to now there are women and babies that are dying, and yet, what we have been only focusing on is who would spin fast and have a last word.

Not surprising, It is expected that in Malawi, given our cultural norms, conventional traditions and a deeply entrenched faith value system, such a law would protract a level of controversy.

However in my view, I think the framers of the new bill also started on a wrong foot.

They could have done better if they had not used the term abortion which on its own is very divisive and politically toxic.

They should have opted for a more sensitive term like “women’s reproductive health”.

‘Overblown narrative’

The word abortion in my view is a trigger in most pro-lifers that causes many to jump into a conclusion even without looking at the actual subject matter and facts.

On both sides we have been forced to error by a fallacy of selective perception and a dose of inductive reasoning.

By continuously and deliberately selecting few premises and areas that only advances our notions and personal agenda without balance, we have all become accomplices to murder.

Whichever way, what we have here is a life of either a baby or a woman being destroyed and we can’t pretend to lend a deaf ear and a blind eye.

Now, as a pro-lifer myself, I could see genuine reasons for the emergence of fear as argued by Dr Zacc Kawalala as he appeared on my show, The great debate.

He was able to point out some of the inconsistencies in the data that was used to craft the basis for the bill.

We can’t dismiss that statistics plays a bigger role in these arguments.

And when you look at the genesis of the abortion campaign with all the trends that followed in other countries after the liberalization of abortion laws, it is true that there is a considerable reason to have a reflection and deep look into the whole law so there is no repetition of such tragedies.

The Guttmacher institute report that was used to provide data, claims that 12000 women die in Malawi due to unsafe abortion services yet the World health organization says that 27000 women die worldwide.

This suggests that almost half of all deaths caused by unsafe abortions worldwide occur in Malawi.

Clearly, this was an overblown narrative to advance or influence a certain agenda.

However, taking into context what Law Society of Malawi had tabled, we can all clearly see that this line of argument on its face value might be true but not applicable to Malawi.

In fact, the proposed law as it stood seemed to be more pro-life than anything else.

And for those of us that stand on morals and values, that’s where we need to begin to ask

“Where is justice for that girl who was brutally raped?”

‘Deep breath’

Morality in its absolute nature can never exist without justice, and justice can never be partial.

For starters this bill was not sponsored by any foreign institutions – It was crafted after a wide consultation with all stakeholders including some in the faith community.

We have heard an argument that there’s a culture of death promoted by institutions like the Guttmacher institute which was founded on the very basis of abortion on request and a notion that Africans are genetically weak and the best way to control their population is to sterilize African women as it is being presented by many on the right.

I will not dispute it or agree because I have no credible means to verify it, am always careful with what I propagate more especially in this world that is flooded with conspiracy theories. However in context with what the bill has presented, this argument also might still beg the question.

In my own curiosity I specifically asked Dr Zacc to pull out of the new law anything that he saw as unreasonably abominable and completely and dangerously departing from our values.

But he fell short on that one as he didn’t provide the ethos and compelling answer.

Dr Thandiwe Hara was one of my other guest that appeared on the same show.

I found her opening remarks to be the most significant and likely to have a profound impact on the way we are to shape a new discourse with a real resolve.

She started by registering her personal perspective, pointing out that the debate had been framed wrongly by focusing only on the extreme polar sides of the divide.

She introduced a third angle which is that of being factual, pragmatic and putting into account the complex nature of these issues.

“What we have done is to reduce such a complex issue into two arguments of pro-choice and pro-life.” This is what has created a big problem in her view. She argued that we can’t focus on values and ethics without looking at facts first.

She passionately argued that values are inconsistent when the lives of many women are neglected with no access to safe services yet at the same time we have allowed some of the social and cultural traditions that have created a culture of rape unchecked.

Pointing at a practice known as ‘Fisi’ (hyena) in other parts of Malawi, where girls are forced into initiation by having sex with older men immediately after their first menstruation period.

“We know that when sex has taken place pregnancies will follow, but have you ever wondered where those pregnancies go?

They are fixed by traditional elderly women using some of the most painful and unsafe procedures.”

She said that in extreme cases elderly women stick objects into the private parts of these girls so that they can pull out and terminate the pregnancy.

In his rebuttal and speaking from a moral and Christian faith perspective, Dr Zacc Kawalala pointed to the fact that when it comes to abortion, we can not begin by dealing with the effects before we address the cause.

This is one of the most immutable laws and principles that we must use in formulating principles that must guide us.

“Every talk of abortion must hinge around the laws and moral values of umunthu.”

Nobody is saying that the unborn lives are more important than that of a mother, anybody practicing medicine when anything happens, their first actions must be to save lives.

The oaths that Doctors take is to save lives.”

He further went on to say that we however can’t pretend to look at facts alone and ignore ethics and values.

After all arguments were made, I personally made a conclusion that it’s important not to let these diverging views to throw us into a dilemma of morality.

We are rational beings, we are not animals. We all need to take a deep breath and reflect on our values without losing sight of facts.

‘Subjected trauma’

In my view, we can do both just like Dr Zacc suggested.

Bearing in mind that all lives matter from conception and as such both the unborn and the mother must be given a safe place of protection and care.

We indeed can not only focus on the solution, we need to look for to question for causes and in order to find lasting solutions.

I would begin by proposing that men who are the culprits should be brought into the center of this debate.

Let’s review the role of a man in impregnating a woman. The responsibilities that have to follow.

More data has indicated that most women don’t want to abort unless it’s in a case of rape and other extreme conditions but they are forced into this by men.

There has to be an added addendum to the bill that would include child support and other social economic support to the woman and baby.

We can’t proceed without addressing these social and economic structural issues that will make men responsible for unwanted pregnancies.

If a terrorist has invaded our home and threatens to kill our loved ones, we surely will employ a moral judgement to eliminate a danger. In a similar way, if a mother’s life is at risk, we must make sure that her life is protected and in extreme cases that may involve termination of pregnancy.

In a case of rape, if the victim does not want to keep the pregnancy, she should be given the treatment and counselling.

If there is evidence of a malformed pregnancy with clear scientific evidence and proof, a mother should not be subjected to trauma of carrying something that will not live.
In the final analysis, I humbly would like to thank Dr Zacc Kawalala and Dr Thandiwe Hara for such a very informative debate.

Lastly, as I sign off and out, let me leave you with some words of wisdom from the brilliant mind of Christiane Northrup who perfectly said: “If we lived in a culture that valued women’s autonomy and in which men and women practiced cooperative birth control, the abortion issue would be moot.”

Adios!

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