Who are we to dictate on these matters?

Saturday, 19 August 1995

Justice John Didcott was right when he told the press its deficiencies threaten the constitutional system...

PRESS coverage of the recommendations on abortion has been inflammatory and sensationalist. At the same time, the media has neglected to inform the public of the constitutional fundamentals that demand such legislation.

It does not matter if the majority is in fact against abortion or if they are for the death penalty. As the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1943: "The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the Courts. One's right to life, liberty, and property ... may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no election."

There is good reason why this should be so. Those of us who are not Zulu may not necessarily want to buy our wives with cattle even though this may be a practice espoused by the majority. Your car will fetch thousands of rand if sold, which could be used by the state to save lives. But the state does not have the right to deprive you of your car or house or even one hour of your day no matter how many lives may be saved as a result.

What if my brother had kidney failure and would die if I did not provide a transplant? Should the state have the right to force me to donate a kidney? No. Would I donate a kidney? Yes. But that would be my choice, and mine alone to make.

It was these principles laid down in the US Bill of Rights that forced the legalisation of abortion in that country in 1973. Even the conservative majority who make up the modern American supreme court were unable to overturn these constitutional principles. Individual rights to life, liberty, and property may be voluntarily surrendered, but never taken by the state or anyone else ... including the unborn.

It's ironic that the ANC/ SACP/Cosatu alliance which has a history of preferring the socialist model of society has emerged as the only grouping that is dedicated to the defence of individual liberty. The religious fervour of the Freedom Front is to be expected, but one would have believed that the National Party — who are ostensibly committed to western capitalist ideals — would have taken a more appropriate line. The Democratic Party's outburst is an embarrassment coming from supposed champions of liberal values.

Does the father have a right to be informed? Well, what if Marike de Klerk were raped and fell pregnant? What if the father was not lily-white? Would FW have welcomed the bastard offspring into his family with open arms? Possibly, after all, this is a man who has won the Nobel Prize.

But most South African men — black or white — would not. In a country where women are regarded as property, a child of violence would be a constant reminder to the husband that his possession had been soiled. Small wonder that most women do not report rapes. And all the more reason why a raped woman would not want to inform her husband were she to seek an abortion.

I remember too clearly an evening 15 years ago when I stopped in the middle of Crescent Street in Overport to help a woman who had crawled into the road seeking help. She had shards of bamboo jutting out from her vagina; the result of a hideous attempt at a backyard abortion.

When the ambulance arrived, she desperately begged the attendants not to tell her husband. Blood dripped onto my shoe as they took her away.

The anti-abortion brigade scored a propaganda coup many years ago when they called themselves "pro-life". But a definition of life should be more embracing than that of an unwanted child born to an embittered mother who will end up on the dung heap of society. A child should raised by loving supportive parents who will allow her to fulfil her human potential and become the next Arya Bhatta, Einstein, Michelangelo or Mandela.

I'm still hopeful that technology will prove to be the final arbiter in the abortion debate. We do not appear to be too far off from a time when medical science will be able to remove a foetus at any stage of pregnancy from a woman's body, and store it safely and indefinitely until it can be implanted in the body of a person — man or woman — who will be willing to nourish and cherish it through to birth.

Perhaps then, men who are currently insistent that women carry foetuses to term will have second thoughts about the process if they themselves are to supply the womb.