JOHANNESBURG — Once a virtual Calvinist state, South Africa has become one of the world's most liberal countries following the passage this week of legislation allowing abortion on demand.
The Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Bill, which allows abortion on request up to the 12th week of pregnancy, was pushed through the lower house of parliament last week by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. The Senate approved the measure Tuesday.
The ANC under President Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994 on a platform that included liberal policies on social issues such as personal freedom, censorship, and gay rights.
Pro-life activists claim that abortion is opposed by the great majority of South Africans - black and white alike - who are active in Christian churches. Although no opinion polls are available to substantiate the pro-life claims, a recent informal phone-in poll by Johannesburg's English-language Radio 702 received 6,348 calls against abortion on demand and 3,285 in favor.
The ANC has countered that abortion on demand was part of the ticket that won it 62.65 percent of the vote in the 1994 elections. This week Health Minister Nkosazana Zuma argued in parliament that South Africa's existing abortion laws forced poor women - mostly black - to resort to back-street operations.
Abortion has been legal here since 1975, but only in cases of rape, incest, or where continuing the pregnancy would pose a serious threat to the health of the mother. To obtain an abortion, a woman had to first gain the approval of at least two doctors, a public notary, and a medical board.
Michelle O'Sullivan of the Reproductive Rights Alliance, an umbrella of pro-choice and family health groups including Planned Parenthood, says that as a result of the old law only 1,000 to 2,000 legal abortions were carried out per year.
Last year a survey by the national Medical Research Council concluded that between 200,000 to 300,000 illegal back-street abortions were carried out annually. It found that in one year 425 women died and countless others were injured in botched operations.
More than 70 percent of those receiving legal abortions were members of the 10-percent white minority, who could afford to shop around for a doctor willing to approve the operation. Others chose to fly overseas to countries such as Britain, where more liberal abortion laws were in place.
Poor black women in the townships and rural areas, who had less access to contraception, also had less access to money, lawyers, and doctors.
The bill was opposed in parliament by South Africa's three main right-wing parties, including the Inkatha Freedom Party, the ANC's junior partner in government. F.W. de Klerk's National Party - until recently the champion of apartheid and Dutch Calvinist social mores - says it will challenge the new law in South Africa's constitutional court.
It is likely to be joined in this challenge by South Africa's anti-abortion movements, which have so far failed to ignite the kind of mass controversy and bitter protest characteristic of abortion debates in Europe and North America.