The number of abortions among women older than 18 has increased steadily in the Western Cape in the past two years, according to Health MEC Theuns Botha.
Responding recently in the legislature on the impact that illegal abortions have on public health care facilities, Botha said such abortions continued to take place, despite the service that was offered at more than 30 health care centres in the province.
While health care facilities had treated a number of women with complications arising from illegal abortions, Botha said it was difficult to say how many cases there had been as those known to the department were only of women who volunteered the information during treatment.
The department had, however, noted an increase in the number of women seeking the legal service.
In 2009, 13 172 abortions were performed in the province.
Last year, the number increased to 13 810.
Most of these, Botha said, were performed on women older than 18.
According to Marie Stopes, one of the largest private clinics specialising in reproductive health care, about 72 percent of women seeking termination of pregnancy were older than 18. Teenagers younger than 18 accounted for 5.8 percent.
Marie Stopes spokeswoman Leanne Visser said most women who sought abortions were aged between 18 and 30.
The clinic’s figures also showed a rise in the number of abortions it performed countrywide, from 46 644 in 2009 to 51 216 last year.
Between January 1 and May 31 this year, the clinic performed about 1 640 abortions.
In just more than 50 percent of the terminations, an abortion pill was used.
In cases where the pregnancy was between nine and 20 weeks, the abortion was performed surgically.
Abortions are performed free of charge in the public health care sector, but in the private sector the cost can range from R900 to more than R2 000.
According to the latest figures from the national Health Department, between 1997 – when legal termination of pregnancy was introduced – and last year, about 702 354 abortions were performed at public health care facilities nationwide.
About 528 000 of these involved teenagers.
Speaking during a Hospital Association of SA conference in Cape Town recently, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi expressed concern about the number of teenagers who were having abortions, describing the situation as “catastrophic”.
He said this was proof that young people were engaging in unprotected sex and risking HIV infection.
Part of what the National Health Insurance would introduce in the re-engineering of primary health care, Motsoaledi said, was a health programme in which nurses would provide reproductive health services at schools.
Visser said while the number of abortions might seem high, this should not be seen as a negative thing.
The increase was an indication that women were becoming more aware of their rights and options.
“The law allows for women to choose to terminate their pregnancy up to 20 weeks of gestation,” Visser said.
“The increase could be for a number of reasons. It could be that women feel more empowered to make such choices.”
Visser urged the authorities to be concerned rather about the number of illegal abortions that were being performed.
She called for more rigorous education to help teenagers make informed decisions.
She also called on parents and teachers to talk openly about contraception methods and the correct use of and access to contraception.
“Research shows that a large majority of pregnant teenagers are in poor communities where educational and financial opportunities are limited.
“Women need to be made aware that contraception is a method to prevent pregnancy, and that abortion is not a form of contraception.”
Marion Stevens, co-ordinator of Women in Sexual and Reproductive Health, said there was a need for a widespread use of abortion pills, otherwise known as medical abortion, rather than the surgical option.
In the Western Cape, the abortion pill was available only at the Khayelitsha clinic.
Botha said the fact that illegal abortions continued to take place pointed to deficiencies in the system, including a lack of access to clinics.