US-funded anti-abortionists ‘violating SA laws’ — Health Dept

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The government is concerned about the funding of anti-abortion campaigners by US lobby groups, claiming that they are violating domestic laws and will be investigated, reports Business Day. A nine-month investigation published by the global news organisation openDemocracy has exposed how anti-abortion groups based in the US are actively discouraging women from having abortions in countries around the world, including South Africa.

Their activities in the country are at odds with the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, which prohibits “directed counselling”, said the Health Department’s Yogan Pillay. “We are very concerned. We didn’t realise there were so many of these organisations funded from outside South Africa. We should be doing everything we can to protect our own legislation,” Pillay said.

Undercover journalists working on openDemocracy’s investigation identified a global network of “pregnancy crisis centres” funded by the Ohio-based Heartbeat International and Virginia-based Human Life International. These organisations are providing women with false and misleading information about abortions. Both groups also oppose contraception.

The South African investigation also found two non-profit organisations that are funded by Heartbeat International and are working inside government health facilities. Pillay said the department will investigate the issues exposed by openDemocracy, and urged the public to report organisations that are breaking the law to the relevant authorities, such as the Health Professions Council of SA. “We can only intervene if a complaint is laid with us,” Pillay said.

Supported by powerful US Christian fundamentalist lobbyists who claim close links to the Trump White House and often styled like health clinics, the Daily Maverick reports that these centres appear to offer pregnant women unbiased “advice”. Crossroads Pregnancy Help Centre in Pretoria says it offers women facing unplanned pregnancies “counselling in a safe environment with accurate information about all options available for you to make an informed decision”. However, an undercover reporter posing as an unemployed woman seeking an abortion was told by centre staff that “abortion is murder”; she could be “killing a future president” and she would “always be haunted by her choice”.

The report says at the Seasons Pregnancy Centre inside Stellenbosch Regional Hospital 1,400km away, another undercover reporter was warned that she could face “post-abortion syndrome” involving “depression and nightmares”. Heartbeat’s training materials also show how they’ve taught staff at some of these centres to encourage women to delay abortion and emergency contraception; to claim that condoms don’t work; and to say that abortion increases risk of abuse of other children and could “turn” partners gay.

The report says responding to openDemocracy’s questions, Heartbeat said “we stand firmly by our Commitment of Care” – a standards document that commits affiliates to accuracy in their information and advertising – “and by all our training resources designed for the pregnancy help community”. “Different countries have their cultures and varied ways of communicating, the fact remains that abortion carries risks to women”, Heartbeat added. “With love and truth, our goal is to help the client understand abortion more fully, so that she can truly make an informed decision.”

The report says most of the South African centres are part of the Africa Cares for Life (ACFL) network, which is one of Heartbeat International’s nine key international partners. It has also received more than $200,000 in grants from the US group since 2007. ACFL executive director Daniele Gradwell confirmed that Heartbeat was one of ACFL’s donors. ACFL currently has 77 “pregnancy help centres” in South Africa and intends to establish one in every town in the country, ideally all equipped with ultrasound machines, Gradwell told openDemocracy. She describes the network as “life-affirming” rather than anti-abortion, and said that its centres offer “non-biased, non-manipulative advice”.

The report says abortion is illegal or heavily restricted in most of Africa, which is also the region with the highest death rate from unsafe abortions in the world. Last year the World Health Organisation estimated that three-quarters of abortions in Africa are unsafe and are responsible for up to 13% of maternal deaths, while seven million women are hospitalised globally every year for complications from unsafe abortions.

Full Business Day report

openDemocracy report

Full Daily Maverick report

WHO abortion fact sheet

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