In March, the Mozambican legislature is expected to pass a bill that would revise the country’s draconian abortion law and legalize voluntary abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. In doing so, Mozambique would become the ninth African country to liberalize its abortion policy in the last decade. Since 2003, 28 countries have ratified an African Union protocol supporting the right to abortion in cases of rape, incest, or high-risk pregnancies. In these incremental changes, there may be signs of a continental shift.
At the Tete Provincial Hospital around the corner from Isabel’s home, Dr. Clemente Madeira, director of obstetric and gynecological services, regularly treats women suffering from complications following clandestine abortions. Many of them have drunk laundry detergent or bitter concoctions offered by traditional doctors or purchased pills from off-duty health workers. Many have hemorrhages, sepsis, and perforated uteruses, and face lifelong infertility or even death.
“The ones who lose their lives are the ones who delay their visits to the hospital,” Dr. Madeira says.
Abdul Carimo, who led the legal reform team that drafted the proposed law, argues that it will save lives. “Only by offering legal, controlled, sanitary means of abortion... will we be able to keep women from taking these risks,” he says.
It is a view that some officials here have held for more than 20 years. Mozambique’s current law is a legacy of the Portuguese colonial penal code, inherited at independence and unchanged since 1886. Though prosecutions are rare, it carries a sentence of up to eight years in prison for providers and pregnant women alike, and girls as young as 16 have been arrested for seeking to interrupt unwanted pregnancies.