Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Ghanaians risk death for abortion
By Rosie Goldsmith
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents
Thousands of women in Ghana are seeking dangerous, illegal abortions every year with many ending in death or disability.
In Ghana abortion is widespread and, because it is technically illegal, mainly unregulated.
It is estimated that as many as two-thirds of all terminations are unsafe and large numbers of women are dying.
Gloria is 22 and lives in a village in eastern Ghana.
She has had two abortions in two years and has not told her family as she is afraid she will be thrown out.
Her village is governed by traditional tribal customs.
Both abortion and contraception are frowned upon and children are seen as precious.
But Gloria does not want children yet - she wants to continue her schooling.
So, with the help of a friend she resorted to self-abortion. But it all went badly wrong.
"The first method I used were the leaves of the bush plant mixed with kawa, a local stone," she told BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents.
"We ground them together and inserted it into the uterus."
But that method did not work and in a small, quavering voice, Gloria said: "Then we inserted the branch of the bush plant and the blood started coming in 15 minutes."
Gloria's second abortion was only four months ago.
First her friend gave her melted sugar with Guinness. No effect.
Then 10 paracetemol tablets ground up with local gin. Still nothing.
"Finally, we tried a broken bottle ground up with seawater and "Blue", a washing detergent, which we soaked in a cotton cloth and inserted into my womanhood," she confessed.
"By doing that the foetus came. I bled and bled and bled for more than five days."
Gloria is today in constant pain and too afraid to see a doctor.
She has refused to tell even her mother, who is a midwife.
"If I informed my mother, she would tell my father and that would be the end of me," she explained.
Other women in both rural Ghana and the cities echo these fears.
In the capital Accra, Gracie, Betty and Debbie spoke about their abortions.
They are all young, single mothers, abandoned by their men and struggling as low-paid market traders.
Betty is just 26.
"Nobody knows, not even my friends. I thought I'd get in big trouble," she said.
The abortion cost 300,000 cedis (about £16), which she said was a lot of money for someone like her.
She continued: "Since my abortion I've not been able to get pregnant again. That was five years ago.
"But I am fortunate because a friend of mine died after hers."
Money was also a big issue for Debbie.
Her boyfriend got her pregnant and then left her.
But her brother gave her money after she lied, saying she needed it because she had malaria.
At the hospital the doctor told her an abortion would cost 500,000 cedis (about £28) but she had only 400,000.
However she pleaded with him and the operation went ahead.
"But that night," Debbie related, "I had terrible pains. I went back to the hospital. The doctor had left part of the foetus in my womb."
And finally, Gracie's story.
Her abortion also took place in a hospital and was also botched.
The doctor who operated on her was not a gynaecologist.
He used dirty instruments and she got a serious infection.
She nearly lost her right leg.
"When I sit down my leg shakes. I can't sleep," she said.
In Africa, Ghana's abortion law is considered relatively liberal.
Technically it is illegal but there are three broad and flexible exceptions which mean women can demand legal terminations.
They are: if she gets pregnant as a result of rape, incest or reduced mental ability; if the pregnancy poses a risk to her physical or mental health, and if the unborn child might suffer an abnormality or disease.
But that is if they know the law at all and that is a major problem.
Women and girls, doctors, quacks, the police, even judges, have all been shown to be ignorant of Ghana's law, or have wilfully broken it knowing they will not be caught.
Gynaecologist Dr Joe Taylor - an advisor on reproductive health to the government - often treats women after botched abortions.
"I've seen many, many, women dying and what is most tragic is that those who don't die suffer disabilities that are life-long and painful," he said.
"Abortion is carried out in this clandestine and dangerous way because most people perceive it to be criminal and illegal."
Ignorance and greed are the main reasons illegal abortion thrives, he said.
No-one knows the exact figures. Statistics are rare in Ghana.
The quacks and the charlatans can charge high fees, even from poor women.
"I often say the female pelvis is a goldmine. And if you're a miner you can make big money," Dr Taylor concluded.
The criminalisation of abortion along with traditional values, social perceptions and religious teachings have created a crisis in Ghana.
And across most of Africa, where it has been estimated that four million females a year undergo unsafe abortions, 30,000 of them die as a result.
One expert has called abortion "a killing field".
And there is little evidence to suggest that the situation will change soon.