Obstetrician Eddie Mhlanga often had to attend to women who had unsafe abortions during apartheid, when abortion was illegal in South Africa.
“I had a colleague who went and obtained an illegal abortion. I was the one who admitted her [after the procedure went wrong]. I promised her at 12 midday on a Thursday that I would see her at 2 o’clock in theatre. That was the last time I spoke to her because, at half-past one, she collapsed. She had been bleeding heavily and been in a lot of pain. When they called me to come to the theatre, she was already under anaesthetic.
“I opened her up and found her womb was rotten from the infection.
“We took that out and sent her to the intensive care unit [ICU]. Three and a half hours later, her condition had not changed. I took her back to theatre, opened her back up and found out that the infection — the pus — had spread from the pelvis right up to her kidneys. We had to scoop this pus all out.
“For the next 10 days, she was in the ICU. Every evening, I would go to the ICU and sit by her bedside. I’d hold her hand and pray, “Lord, give her another chance. She is no more a sinner than I am.”
“After 10 days, she died.
“The following week, at the funeral, her mother was sitting there with her daughter’s four-year-old son. I looked at them and said: “No woman deserves to lose a daughter to unsafe abortion, no child deserves to grow up without a mother.”
“That was the moment where everything changed.”
Eddie Mhlanga is the Mpumalanga health department’s specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist. This experience of treating a friend and colleague who had an illegal abortion changed the way he thought about abortion, which he had opposed during his younger years as a doctor. He went on to become one of the authors of the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act. He spoke to Laura López González.