The Children’s Act no 38 of 2005 came into effect on 1 July 2007, with rather less debate than one might have expected. It drastically changes traditional power relationships between children and parents, especially concerning children's sexual freedoms.
Children around the world are becoming physically sexually mature at an earlier age than before. This does not necessarily mean they become sexually active at younger ages (many choose to postpone physical sexual activity until later in life). In South Africa, the age of consent is 16 for both sexes. Curiously, it used to be 19 for boys and 16 for girls, a discrepancy never adequately explained or justified.
Anyway, the Termination of Pregnancy Act now allows girls as young as 12 to have an abortion without their parents' consent. I understand that there may have been a wish to enable a girl who became pregnant to have an abortion without delay – especially since much very early sexual activity and thus pregnancy is a result of rape or abuse. But parental consent is still necessary before an appendix, for instance, can be removed, so, if care of the child is the driving concern, this is inconsistent.
Contraception for all occasions
It is understandable that contraception should be made available to sexually active teens, even if their parents object. In the US, for instance, widespread educational programmes have been concentrating on reproductive problem-solving and empowerment, rather than dogmatic lecturing. Recent reports link an increase in condom usage with a significant and heartening fall in the number of teen pregnancies.
But back in South Africa, where there is no comprehensive and co-ordinated education campaign, were the law-makers perhaps thinking past the obvious when this latest law was passed? Abortion cannot be considered a form of contraception; and the long-term effects, both physical and psychological, of multiple abortions, is devastating. Therefore, dropping the age limit of abortions without instituting a campaign such as the American one, is a recipe for pain.
I understand that many parents sincerely believe (though available evidence suggests they are mistaken) that education regarding the availability and use of contraception encourages earlier sexual experimentation. While our sex-drenched culture may indeed encourage earlier sexual activity, knowledge about contraception does not do so, but reduces the incidence of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Would it not be better, rather than removing parents from their responsibility and rights regarding their child’s physical and emotional state, to instead provide an appeal mechanism against parents who unreasonably refuse consent for abortion, or any other medical procedure their child might need? That would encourage responsible and concerned parents to remain involved, while providing an emergency over-ride when refusal of consent appears to be unreasonable and potentially risky to the child's health.
(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka Cybershrink, July 2007)