Abortion Ecologies in Southern African Fiction: Transforming Reproductive Agency

By | September 8, 2023


In contemporary South Africa, these words may be found plastered on any public objects ranging from lamp posts to litter bins. Promotional flyers by traditional healers make similar claims alongside promises to bring back lost lovers, enhance penis length and more. The supposedly painless abortion is often named first: most convincingly, perhaps, in a list of fictive achievements. Growing up in post-apartheid South Africa, I did not know what to make of the posters that appeared routinely in city centres and shopping malls. State school sex education classes in the 2000s were more concerned with circumventing HIV/AIDS through alphabetized slogans (Abstain, Be Faithful, Condomize) than discussing what happens if and when contraception fails. Sometimes adults spoke in hushed disgust of ‘those adverts’ when they materialized in historically white suburbs. Generally, this was the most my peers and I read about the topic. We did not know there could be safer forms of abortion beyond the metaphorical backstreets. And, to many, the termination of pregnancy was not something that we should be informed about.

            South Africa’s clandestine advertisements belie the fact that the country has one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world. Passed in 1996, two years after the sweeping victory of the African National Congress (ANC), the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy (CTOP) Act states that all women have the right to access safe and legal terminations of pregnancy for free at government hospitals or clinics during the first three months of pregnancy. Abortion is also available under certain conditions with a doctor’s consent from thirteen to twenty weeks of gestation, and there is limited access for extreme circumstances after twenty weeks. The trimester system was ostensibly developed as a form of compromise to appease liberal pro-choice activists and conservative anti-abortionists: it is tolerant of abortion, but only for the first twelve weeks of pregnancy (when a developing zygote, which is referred to as an embryo up until the eleventh week of gestation, is generally considered to hold less agency than a foetus). Yet a 2005 study in the International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology revealed that more than half of a sample group of forty-six women who underwent illegal abortions in South Africa did so because they were unaware of the current law (Jewkes et al. 2005: 1236). It is very likely that these women would have been exposed to fake information about illicit abortifacients or operations instead of free government services. This is not to say that state-funded clinics are necessarily supportive of those seeking abortions, either; a survey of pre-abortion counselling services at public hospitals in the Eastern Cape province revealed that healthcare providers often attempt to coerce abortion seekers into keeping their pregnancies by framing the operation as immoral, shameful, traumatic or even life-threatening (Mavuso 2021: 4).

            Of course, abortion stigma is not exclusive to southern Africa, or even Africa in general. In her archival research on historical geographies of abortion in Lancashire during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Francesca P.L. Moore discovered that euphemisms such as ‘Herbalism’ or ‘Women’s History’ were used by archivists who sensed that any direct references to terminations of pregnancy might result in information being withheld from public records (2010: 265). More recently, Texas has introduced the so-called Heartbeat Act of 2021 that controversially bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. At this stage, many women are unlikely to even be aware that they are pregnant, while others still might not have had the time to fully contemplate or finance their available options. Campaigners for the act argue that embryonic cardiac activity may be detected by transvaginal ultrasound from six weeks; crucially, and despite the lawmakers’ semantic choices, reproductive health professionals argue that this cellular activity is too underdeveloped to be classified as a heartbeat, let alone an indicator of sentience. These historical and ongoing challenges to accessing safe, legal terminations of pregnancy demonstrate how questions of language and narrative have always been at the centre of the so-called abortion debate – a debate where, more often than not, facts about foetal development are shrouded in fiction. Such cases may also lead one to assume that artists around the world have faced decades of censorship when writing about reproductive agency. Yet, during my studies in the university town where J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace ([1999] 2000) is partially set, something surprising emerged: the topic of abortion was inescapable. In an English lecture, one professor contemplated the ethical implications of Coetzee’s narrative about a woman who is raped and refuses to abort the resultant foetus. A seminar on Zoë Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town (1987) degenerated into a heated class discussion on terminations of pregnancy. The word abortion even appeared on a secondary reading list about Olive Schreiner, one of the country’s most famous cultural exports.[i] I was particularly surprised to discover that abortion narratives from apartheid South Africa and surrounding regions were not shrouded in veiled references such as the terms that Moore describes above. Rather, southern African fiction was theorizing reproductive agency in both frank and feminist terms during the height of extreme political upheaval.

            Analysing South African, Zimbabwean and Botswanan fictional materials, this book traces creative formations of abortion from the late 1970s to the 1990s. It focuses on texts by Wilma Stockenström, Zoë Wicomb, Yvonne Vera and Bessie Head. The women in this study render creativity as a literal and symbolic force in their narration of social injustices; biological formations in their artistic forms are utilized to question the very nature of agency and materiality in southern Africa. I understand agency as the embodiment of personal and political desires rather than a teleological will for action or drive for power. My methodology interprets materialist feminism as a philosophy directing us towards the notion that all agencies matter, instead of positing that there is a scale of worth or comparative value between different subjectivities. New materialism emerged in the 1990s, positing a theoretical turn to considering the significance of matter and often operating in conjunction with philosophical posthumanism: that is, the anti-anthropocentric critique of human relationships with nonhuman organisms and materials. Yet new materialism’s reliance on Anglo-European philosophies means that the field’s supposed novelty is often asserted without considering perspectives originating beyond North America and Europe. Engaging critically with terms from postcolonial theorists and the new materialists – who are interested in recognising agentive capacities beyond the binaries of human/nonhuman, organic/inorganic – I consider both traditional worldviews and the influence of colonial ideology upon southern African regions. Importantly, and contrary to many contemporary associations with terminations of pregnancy, the fiction in this study asserts that abortion is not the denial of a future. These formations of agency not only precede new materialist conceptions of the zygote and gestating environment, but also exceed such theory through creative experimentation with transgressive, and locally situated, alternatives.

Caitlin E. Stobie, author of Abortion Ecologies in Southern African Fiction, is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leeds, UK. She is the author of Thin Slices (Verve Poetry Press, 2022).

[i] The title in question was of Helen Bradford’s 1995 article ‘Olive Schreiner’s Hidden Agony: Fact, Fiction and Teenage Abortion’.

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