BY JOSEPH RWAGATARE, 27 MARCH 2012

A girl walking from school. (File Photo) (Photo Courtesy Katy Gabel/AllAfrica)

Abortion is an emotive issue anywhere in the world. Few discussions about abortion are ever moderate. They often draw the most extreme, passionate, distorted and even unreasoned views. And so it has been in Rwanda in the last few days.

The debate here has been fueled by two things. First, is government’s intention to amend the law on abortion. This has been interpreted (erroneously as it turns out) to mean that government intends to legalise abortion. It is this misinterpretation of intention that has excited passions.

Now, Rwanda has some of the most enlightened economic and social legislation. But it has not yet got anywhere near legalising some of the more controversial and divisive issues like abortion. In some instances, it has tended to decriminalise them, while in others, it has sought to reduce sentences and allow for extenuating circumstances.

In the present debate, the latter seems to have been the intention. The amendment to the law seeks to reduce sentence given to offenders. As Mr Tharcisse Karugarama, the Minister of Justice, said in a BBC Kinyarwanda programme, Imvo ni Imvano on March 24, offenders should be helped to heal instead of being heavily punished.

Second, was the publication of figures of cases of abortion in Rwanda. It was reported that 60,000 abortions take place in the country every year. Most of these are unsafe, with 40 per cent leading to complications that require treatment.

The number of abortions is probably higher than this because most of them go unreported. We do not even know how many die or whose reproductive capacity is irreparably damaged.

This is the context of the current debate. Most of what I have seen has been wrong. For instance, in all the public discussions, nearly all participants have been men – usually, old men. Most of the men have been religious leaders. You cannot expect a balanced view from this limited group with strongly-held views on the topic.

First of all abortion directly affects women. They are the ones who make the decision whether to terminate a pregnancy or not. It’s their lives that are in danger. And they cannot be said to be less concerned about their pregnancy than the men who pontificate about the sanctity of life from the emotional safety of the pulpit or office. Where are the women? They are markedly absent from the debate. Their views on the subject or reasons that compel them to acts of desperation have not been heard.

Also, where are the voices of young people, who are likely to be entangled in the whole question?

I think it is a waste of time to talk about an issue and seek to prescribe measures regarding it when those directly affected are excluded from the conversation.

Secondly, the views of the men who are brought to discuss abortion are so well known; there is nothing new to learn from them. They cannot be expected to offer any other solutions. All men of the cloth, of whatever faith, are vehemently opposed to abortion. They will not even listen to circumstances where terminating a pregnancy may be the only way to save a life or the sanity of an individual. Can they feel the anguish of a mother taking such a drastic decision? Can they feel the pain – physical and psychological – that may have accompanied conception and continue to dog the woman? They can only take refuge from the real world behind a veneer of smug piety and condemn what they have never felt or are indeed incapable of feeling.

I heard someone from civil society condemn abortion in stronger terms than the bishops did. It was easy to tell where his organisation gets its funding from.

But we have to consider this question. Why do abortions continue to take place despite the legal, moral and religious injunctions? Clearly, there are serious issues to look into, and sanctimonious posturing simply won’t do. The debate should address these issues.

Also consider this. Some of the good men of the cloth are responsible for some unwanted pregnancies. And when the poor girl or woman tells the man of God about the pregnancy, he will either deny it or threaten her with divine retribution for daring to slander the servant of the Most High. He will then proceed to denounce loudly the immorality in our society. He will cry and lament the level of moral decadence.

Think about this as well. How many of the obviously well-to-do men discussing this subject have come up to offer help to starving or traumatised children and mothers – victims of rape, incest, coercion by those who have authority over them or some other form of abuse?

We cannot solve the complex question of abortion through hypocrisy, posturing or pious statements about the sanctity of life because this amounts to hiding our heads in the sand.

The debate is healthy, if it takes the right direction. And obviously it is a complex problem as there are serious ethical and legal issues to weigh. But the debate must not be stilted or left to a bunch of old men to determine. Let those who are most affected have their say.