Abortion & Infanticide: How Zimbabwean Law Protects Women Who Abort Or Kill Their Babies

After shocking images of a girl who died while performing an abortion went viral on Whatsapp, Dr. Benson Mudiwa discusses abortion from a legal and medical perspective
After shocking images of a girl who died while performing an abortion went viral on Whatsapp, Dr. Benson Mudiwa discusses abortion from a legal and medical perspective

By Dr. Benson Mudiwa

Social media has been abuzz in recent days after ghastly images emerged of a woman who had allegedly lost her life while performing an “abortion”.

Abortion is deliberately in quotes, in an attempt to show that, technically, if the size of the fetus is anything to go by ,then that was by no means an abortion.

A better description of the events would be child birth with subsequent infanticide.

Most people were appalled that any sane human could perform such a heinous act, this is their own child, their own blood and DNA, they would argue. Others seemed to feel that the judicial system had not dealt with these kind of offenders appropriately as some of the sentences handed down were too lenient at worst and ridiculous at best.

Before I delve deeper into this apparent quagmire, it suffices to define a few key words.

Abortion is defined as termination of a pregnancy, whether naturally or otherwise, before viability of the fetus. That is, removing a “baby” which when in the outside world would not be expected to survive.

This time is arbitrarily defined depending on which continent/country you are, but generally in developed countries it is usually any time before 20 weeks, and in developing countries it stretches to any time before 28 weeks. The reason for this discrepancy is a discussion for another day.

It seems prudent that I also introduce and define another key term – Infanticide, which is when a mother intentionally kills her own child before the child has celebrated their first birthday that is before they turn one, and like a certain forensic pathologist would exclaim in his burly voice during lectures, “infanticide is not murder!”

Generally in many past societies, infanticide was permissible, tales are told of how in some African societies, if a woman delivered a multiple pregnancy, that is twins, triplets, quadruplets for example, this was considered taboo and an omen of bad luck. Infanticide was therefore performed, by bystanders to the delivery, and usually with neither the consent nor the knowledge of the mother.

This was deemed a cleansing ritual. And since having multiple pregnancies runs in families, with a strong association towards maternal relatives, you can’t help but pity families who had a genetic predisposition to multiple pregnancy, they were figuratively and literally unlucky.

Christianity and Islam outlaw infanticide, viewing it scripturally as a disregard for human life. Around the world however, there is a striking dissimilarity in how different countries view and punish infanticide.

Mitigating factors are often explored and examined, coupled with the fact that the benefit of doubt is given to the mother, with the result that often times the woman is exonerated of murder or manslaughter.

The Infanticide Act states that “a woman who, within six months of the birth of her child, unlawfully and intentionally causes the child’s death at a time when the balance of her mind is disturbed as a result of giving birth to the child, shall be guilty of the offense of infanticide and liable to a fine not exceeding level 10, or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years, or to both such fine and such imprisonment”.

A pregnancy induced disturbance of the balance of a woman’s mind is a key factor in the interpretation and application of this law. In determining whether or not the woman’s mind was altered, regard is made to any pressure or stress, real or anticipated, emanating from the effect that caring for the child has on a woman’s social, financial or marital situation.

This would seem too lenient and promoting the selfish motives of these “killer moms”, but it is imperative to have empathy towards these women, the majority of whom are confused and disoriented young girls who deserve our censure. Post-partum Psychosis is a term used by Psychiatrists to describe this alteration in the mental state of a woman who has given birth.

Women are encouraged however not to suffer alone as there are institutions that can assist with taking care of their children, and if they cannot, they can give the child away for adoption. Professional help can also be sought concerning postpartum depression.