Letters from TZ

No shifting goalposts in the abortion debate

I’ve had football on the brain all week. Simba’s thrashing of the Young Africans last weekend was so humiliating I was forced to take comfort in the English premier league. I don’t particularly like Manchester City but I like United even less, in fact I don’t like United at all. So if City manages to knock United off the top spot with a win against Queen’s Park Rangers today, life will be beautiful. But none of this would bother me I wasn’t an AFC fanatic – an Arsenal supporter of the Abaluhyia persuasion. Both teams are in the business of breaking hearts so usually my joy only comes from the misfortune of others.

Football has the unique ability to both unite and polarise. There is no sitting on the fence when it comes to team loyalties; you either support a particular side or you don’t. And that’s quite alright. We are all entitled to our own opinions. No one will fault you for supporting Yanga over Simba or AFC Leopards over Gor Mahia– they might insult you and you may even come to blows but at the end of the day, they will respect your choice to support whichever team you choose.

Not so for many other issues that we encounter in life. One of the most divisive issues of our time is abortion, and the debate around a baby’s right to live versus a mother’s right to choose. Informing both sides of the debate is a question that no one seems to have the definitive answer to: When does life begin? Perhaps a better question would be, when is life viable? At which point can human offspring survive independent of its mother?

It is said that giving birth is more difficult for humans than for most other mammal species. Humans have a narrower birth canal, which makes the birthing process riskier and more difficult. Comparatively speaking, scientists say that human babies have larger heads and broader shoulders, which makes their passage through the birth canal a long, painful and tiring process for their mothers, and a risky one for the babies too. Because of this, human mothers are usually assisted during delivery. Most other primates give birth without assistance. To counter the difficulty of delivery some suggest, human foetuses are born at a less mature stage, when their bodies are smaller and easier to birth. As a result, human babies are more vulnerable than other mammalian offspring.

I once witnessed a heifer delivering a calf. Within minutes of those little hooves hitting the ground, the calf was taking its first steps, albeit gingerly. Within a couple of days, she was running around like a deer in the wild, as if she had been on the planet for at least a week. Most human babies live for months before they can walk. For the first few years of their lives, human babies would have a difficult time surviving were it not for the direct input of their mothers or caregivers. There are alive but incapable of staying that way without assistance. Fair or not, a human baby is at the mercy of its mother at every stage of its early development. Because of that extreme dependence, rightly or wrongly, mothers wield an inordinate amount of control over the lives of their children.

The other day I heard a man argue that if we allow mothers to abort their unborn children, we may as well allow them to kill them when they are born and grown. He was making the point that aborting a foetus is tantamount to killing a child because in his opinion, life begins at that secret rendezvous between ovum and sperm. And that may very well be. Or not.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter when life begins, or at which point a child can survive without its mother. As long as human children spend the first ninth months of their development in a female womb, that female can decide whether they live or die. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying that’s the way it is.

Abortion is illegal in Tanzania and can only be performed in specific circumstances, for example to protect the life and/or mental well being of the mother. Post-abortion care on the other hand is not. So. If a woman procures an illegal, unsafe abortion in some back street clinic and something goes wrong, she can walk into any hospital and receive treatment legally – no questions asked. It would seem then that someone somewhere realises that abortion will happen despite the fact that it is outlawed by Section 150 of the Penal Code. But even those being the facts, the debate rages on, usually among people who will never be in a position to consider terminating a pregnancy. The fact remains that this is one area of a woman’s life that men will never be able to control, whether or not they have the law on their side. Unfortunately for us all, it is a matter of life and death.