Tuesday, September 26

Too many have suffered under Ghana’s abortion laws. Ending Roe v Wade risks our hope for change | bisi ajapon

Nor one knew she’d had multiple abortions. Not even me, a lifelong friend. “I can’t even count how many times I had to do it. He wouldn’t let me use contraception and he wouldn’t wear anything.” Sitting opposite her at a restaurant, I felt deep anguish. This was a prominent Ghanaian official.

Cover of The Teller of Secrets a novel by Bisi Adjapon from Ghana. Photograph: Courtesy of Harper Via

She told me how my novel, The Teller of Secrets, had stirred memories she had tried to suppress. It was not the only shame-filled confession triggered by the book. An award-winning Ghanaian film-maker messaged me to share harrowing accounts of a Muslim woman’s abortions she couldn’t make public. Literary friends of mine have confided similar pain. Almost every African woman I know, mid-30s and above, has had an abortion or two, or more.

A male relative confessed to me, with minimal repentance, how he subjected women to abortions rather than permit contraception, even threatening to leave them if they didn’t comply. In a culture where marriage validates women, they are often powerless to refuse. But nothing compares to the horror a child must feel when she finds herself pregnant, like when my 13-year-old niece was raped. Her mother de ella, a staunch Christian, forced my niece to drop out of school and give birth, setting off a cycle of poverty, more children and a disastrous marriage that finally culminated in her tragic death de ella. If her mother de ella had allowed an abortion, I would have wept but refused to judge. I was in no position to help financially or adopt the baby. My childhood is merely one illustration of child mothers.

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Poor people send their daughters into servitude in wealthy homes where they’re often forced to sleep with the master or older offspring. When a child is forced to give birth it can lead to a torn womb, or the wretched condition of fistula where the bladder is eroded.

It doesn’t have to happen like this. Abortion is illegal in Ghana, except in cases of incest, rape, fetal abnormalities or when a woman’s life is at risk. But ignorance, poverty, religious belief and stigma prevent girls and women from seeking abortion even when it would be legal.

Where it is illegal, money makes it possible. Many doctors willingly perform abortions for those with cash. Those who can’t afford to pay subject themselves to dubious procedures under unsanitary conditions. Women guzzle whole bottles of gin or ingest harmful chemicals. Coat hangers have breached cervixes to provoke contractions. Women have had their wombs scraped without anaesthesia, have bled to death or contracted infections that have scarred their innards and left them infertile. When such a woman is caught, she is shamed and punished. It is only when she dies that society’s wrath turns to the impregnator. Someone has to pay, after all.

In a land where so-called churches sprout up seemingly daily, where pastors have flogged pregnant teens or stomped on stomachs, fear of God’s wrath paralyzes. Lately, there have been calls to legalize abortionpointing to its lawfulness in western countries, especially in the US whose influence prompted Ghana to overhaul its educational system in 1988. So now there is unease at the potential overturning of Roe v Wade.

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Anti-abortion zealots in the US consider some forms of contraception as equivalent to abortion. The draft supreme court opinion does not refer to it, but some legal experts fear it could mean reduced access to contraception. The Republican governor of Mississippi has refused to rule out banning some forms of contraception. Bill Gothard, whose curriculum is used by many home schoolers, exhorts women to abstain from destroying babies through contraception, but to rather procreate to raise an army for Christ. At a seminar I once attended in Virginia, he quoted from the Bible that women will be preserved through childbirth, concluding that having multiple births is a fountain of youth for women.

Anti-abortionists have called for defunding Planned Parenthood and so international family planning programmes, whose largest donor is USAid, are already under threat. These family planning clinics provide nutrition, prenatal care, counseling and baby-wellness to the poor. They reduce abortions, and maternal and infant mortality.

So here’s the question: since women are the ones who get pregnant, shouldn’t they have unfettered access to contraception? Shouldn’t they exercise the right to pull out any unwanted seeds planted by those who value them as little more than soil to be cultivated at will? Shouldn’t any female be the decider of what happens inside her body, of what affects her future? Overturning Roe v Wade will rip agency from all women and emboldened extremists worldwide.

We must raise girls who feel valued, who don’t view marriage as aspirational, who are financially independent. Health workers must be better educated to stop shaming girls for seeking contraception. Most of all, Ghana’s national insurance scheme must cover reproductive health, so that women’s fate is less reliant on foreign policies. A woman’s right to choose is a right that must be defended.

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