Malawi’s parliament has withdrawn an abortion bill from debate following opposition to the proposal to liberalize the country's law, which only allows abortions when the mother’s life is at risk. Anti-abortion groups had urged the National Assembly not to discuss the measure, but activists who want abortion options expanded say they will fight on.
The withdrawal of the measure from consideration comes three months after lawmakers unanimously rejected a motion to debate the Termination of Pregnancy Bill. The bill has been strongly opposed by anti-abortion groups, many citing religious grounds, which urged lawmakers not to debate the issue.
The measure could have allowed abortions in cases of rape and incest.
Mathews Ngwale is chairperson for the Parliamentary Committee on Health that was tasked with presenting the bill in parliament.
He says the proposal’s withdrawal is a result of stiff resistance from both lawmakers and citizens.
"Last time, when I was about to present the bill, the politicians, the political parties, prevented me from doing that," Ngwale said. "Now, that got me thinking. And also, having traveled around the country, it also got me thinking. What I have seen is that this problem, we are prescribing to the people, in other words, we are telling people what they should have, people are not telling us what they want, that’s where the disconnect is.”
Ngwale said the bill might be brought back to parliament for consideration in the future.
The current 160-year-old law criminalizes abortion, with the only exception being if the mother’s life is in danger. Offenders face up to 14 years in jail.
Advocates of the measure say despite the restrictive law, studies have shown many mothers still seek abortion services.
A joint study by Malawi’s College of Medicine and the U.S.-based Guttmacher Institute reveals more than 140,000 backstreet abortions take place illegally every year in Malawi and 12,000 deaths result.
One of the latest is the death of a 14-year-old girl in central Malawi last month after she took an herbal concoction in an attempt to terminate a five-month pregnancy.
Advocates say the proposed bill aims to expand legal abortion from only cases where the mother’s life is at risk to include rape, incest, fetal deformity, and threats to health.
Amos Nyaka is the deputy chairperson for Coalition for Prevention of Unsafe Abortion, a local NGO championing liberalization of the abortion laws.
He was disappointed by the withdrawal of the measure.
“Of course, it reflects the disappointment that we have because all along from the advocacy work that we had, we had the impression that it would pass, but unfortunately, we noticed that the current crop of parliamentarians don’t seem to be in support of that,” Nyaka said.
Nyaka said the organization would consider having other options to have the abortion laws liberalized.
"One of which is to go for legal interpretation of the current law and see whether it is in line with the constitution or other legal instruments that we have,” Nyaka said. "And the other one would be to seek for the repeal of the already statues that are in our laws that were inherited from our former colonial masters since 1929.”
Pro-life activists and many faith-based groups have strongly opposed the passing of the abortion bill, saying doing so is tantamount to giving a person a license to kill and that it is a sin to take a life.