Media Misses Chance to Save Lives

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World population day is celebrated on the 11th of July each year, this year, the subject is family planning. UNFPA states that worldwide access to family planning could save the lives of approximately 175 000 women each year.

A current issue around family planning in South Africa is the Amendment of the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, which made termination of pregnancy facilities more widely available for South African women. Recent monitoring by the Media Monitoring Project (MMP) suggests that press coverage may stigmatise abortion by associating it with irresponsible sexual behaviour and provides little information on the procedure and how to access it.

Termination of pregnancy saves lives; there has been a 90% reduction of maternal deaths in South Africa since the introduction of the Act (Bateman in “South African Medical Journal”, 12/07). Family planning, including termination of pregnancy, enables women to take control over their body and future, and with that increases their opportunity to participate in the labour market. Clearly, termination of pregnancy is not a contraceptive and should not be used in this way.

For the MMP, and other gender focused organisations, choice on termination of pregnancy and the right to family planning are important women’s rights. This is why the MMP has been monitoring the media’s coverage of the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Amendment Act.

A 1997 research project conducted by MMP , showed a significant bias towards pro-life organisations and representatives. The results of the current monitoring suggest that some of the coverage still tends to be biased in favour of pro life positions.

Some of the articles monitored suggest that the Amendment Act, like the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act itself, was forced upon South Africans.

“ANC lawmakers pushed through the controversial abortion law in Parliament yesterday in the face of heated criticism from opposition parties” (Sowetan, 18/01/2008 p. 6)

This emphasis confuses the issue in two ways. Firstly, it might suggest that the issue of legalised abortion was being reassessed. This was not the case; the amendments had to be revised for procedural reasons and women continue to have access to termination of pregnancy facilities. Secondly, this focus ignores the benefits the Act has had for maternal health.

In addition, many of the news items suggested termination of pregnancy was often used as an alternative form of contraception by irresponsible teenagers. Articles that mention:

“It seems that our youngsters do not have anything else to do but be active sexually. The clinic has released statistics that prove after every holiday there is an influx of teenagers wanting abortions.” (Daily News, 10/01/08 p. 6)

or

“82.000 DEAD BABIES!” (…) THAT’S THE DEATH TOLL AT THE NATION’S ABORTION CLINICS!” And every year the number of aborted babies goes up. Right now is a peak time… as teenage girls come for abortions after the festive season. There will be another peak time for abortions among young girls after the July school holidays!” (Daily Sun, 11/01/08 p.1).

Stories like these may contribute to stigmatising termination of pregnancy as immoral or as means for dealing with irresponsible teenage behaviour.

As a result of this stigma, women may be reluctant to access legal termination of pregnancies, contributing to high numbers of unsafe illegal backstreet abortions.

With coverage favouring stories detailing the excesses of termination of pregnancy and so little on the procedure itself, women lack information on abortion. Mosotho Gabriel, former director of Ipas South Africa(http://www.ipas.org) wrote in Mail & Guardian (22-28 February 2008 p. 29) that

“Women don’t know that they have a constitutional right to choose not to have babies that they are not willing to have, and as a result they go to backstreet abortionists to have their pregnancies terminated.”

It hoped that media will rather present issues relating to the amendment bill and stories in a balanced accurate and fair manner and avoid biased positions. South African media could contribute further to saving women’s lives by providing information on family planning, and issues relating to termination of pregnancy. Women, after all, have a constitutional right to make decisions concerning reproduction, they need sufficient information in order to exercise this right.

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For more information on the above, please contact MMP Director William Bird on williamb@mediamonitoring.org.za, or projects coordinator Sandra Roberts on sandrar@mediamonitoring.org.zaor +2711 788 1278.

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