Attitudes and Intentions regarding Abortion Provision among Medical School Students in South Africa
Wheeler, Stephanie B., Zullig, Leah L., Reeve, Bryce B., Buga, Geoffrey A., Morroni, Chelsea, International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health
CONTEXT: Although South Africa liberalized its abortion law in 1996, significant barriers still impede service provision, including the lack of trained and willing providers. A better understanding is needed of medical students' attitudes, beliefs and intentions regarding abortion provision.
METHODS: Surveys about abortion attitudes, beliefs and practice intentions were conducted in 2005 and 2007 among 1,308 medical school students attending the University of Cape Town and Walter Sisulu University in South Africa. Bivariate and multivariate analyses identified associations between students'characteristics and their general and conditional support for abortion provision, as well as their intention to act according to personal attitudes and beliefs.
RESULTS: Seventy percent of medical students believed that women should have the right to decide whether to have an abortion, and large majorities thought that abortion should be legal in a variety of medical circumstances. Nearly one-quarter of students intended to perform abortions once they were qualified, and 72% said that conscientiously objecting clinicians should be required to refer women for such services. However, one-fifth of students believed that abortion should not be allowed for any reason. Advanced medical students were more likely than others to support abortion provision. In multivariate analyses, year in medical school, race or ethnicity, religious affiliation, relationship status and sexual experience were associated with attitudes, beliefs and intentions regarding provision.
CONCLUSIONS: Academic medical institutions must ensure that students understand their responsibilities with respect to abortion care--regardless of their personal views--and must provide appropriate abortion training to those who are willing to offer these services in the future. International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2012, 38(3): 154-163, doi: 10.1363/3815412
Voluntary induced termination of pregnancy is a common medical procedure worldwide. An estimated 42 million abortions are performed annually; nearly 20 million are considered medically unsafe. (1-4) Estimates suggest that 97% of unsafe abortions occur in the developing world, and that unsafe abortion is the leading cause of maternal deaths in Africa, which has the world's highest case-fatality rates. (2), (3), (5), (6)
After a 1994 study found that an estimated 45,000 South African women per year were admitted to public hospitals as a result of incomplete or unsafe abortion, (7), (8) the country legalized abortion in 1996. Prior to this change in the law, abortion had been legal in very limited circumstances under the Sterilization Act of 1975, requiring the approval of three physicians. The 1996 law specifies that a woman can obtain an abortion on request within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. (9) Between 13 and 20 weeks' gestation, a woman can obtain an abortion if at least one of four criteria is satisfied: continuing the pregnancy would pose a risk to the woman's mental or physical health; there is significant risk that the unborn child would have a mental or physical handicap; the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest; or having the child would be detrimental to the woman's socioeconomic condition. (9) Beyond 20 weeks, abortion is sanctioned only when the woman's life is endangered. In addition, although medical providers can conscientiously object to performing abortions, providers who are unwilling or unable to offer abortion services are legally obligated to inform women of their rights and to refer them to other providers.
As part of a series of progressive human rights initiatives undertaken by the postapartheid government, the 1996 law extended abortion provision to all provinces in South Africa, and free abortion services were provided in public clinics and hospitals. (9) Although the legalization of abortion often leads to a considerable decrease in maternal morbidity and mortality through the resulting decline in unsafe abortions, (10) it does not necessarily ensure effective implementation of and access to medically safe abortion services. One global survey estimated that approximately 60% of the world's population lives in countries where abortion is officially legal but considerable barriers to getting an abortion remain, despite high demand. (11) In South Africa, one national survey of 15-24-year-olds found that 65% of women who had ever been pregnant reported having had at least one unwanted pregnancy, but only 3% had received an abortion in a medical facility. (12) In one major city, only one-third of all abortions requested over a two-year period had actually been performed. (13) Estimates suggest that as many as 125,000 unsafe abortions (out of approximately 200,000 total abortions) are performed annually in South Africa, and that 26% of maternal deaths result from unsafe abortion. (3), (14-17) There is also concern that barriers in access to abortion services have led to an elevated rate of second-trimester abortions (about 20% of all procedures), (18), (19) and these later abortions are inherently more dangerous.
Barriers to access lead to a significant public health burden, in terms of both cost and poor health outcomes associated with medically unsafe abortions, as well as the strain placed on providers to meet the high demand for abortion without compromising quality of care. Evidence that midwives and nurses can safely provide first-trimester abortions has increased the use of such providers in South Africa, which has shifted some of the burden from doctors in hospitals to midlevel providers in community health centers. (20-23) In addition, the increased use of medication abortion has helped to relieve the bottleneck of abortion service provision. (24), (25) However, in spite of South Africa's policy-making efforts, staff, infrastructure and budgetary constraints have limited the effectiveness and timeliness of the rollout of abortion services in the country. (26), (27) Yet the greatest barrier to implementing the abortion law has been the lack of health personnel willing to train to become abortion providers. (28), (29)
Data from present and future health care providers regarding their abortion attitudes, beliefs and practice intentions can yield insight about the potential supply of the abortion providers and can point to opportunities for training, values clarification and recruitment of practitioners. As the next generation of health care providers, medical students are a critical component of service provision, and a better understanding of their attitudes, beliefs and intentions regarding abortion may help inform the development of training programs and policies regarding abortion care.
Studies in the United States and the United Kingdom have shown associations between medical students' attitudes toward abortion and a number of individual characteristics, including religious beliefs, gender, age, sexual experience, exposure to abortion, extent of medical training in abortion services and future practice intentions. (30-34) However, these findings may not be generalizable to South Africa or other African nations, and may not accurately reflect the nuances of African health systems and cultures. Furthermore, little research has been conducted on abortion in developing nations, and to help address this gap in the literature, the current study assessed attitudes and beliefs about abortion provision and future practice intentions of South African medical students. This research expands the scope of an earlier study that assessed attitudes and beliefs about abortion among students at a small medical school in rural South Africa. (35)
METHODS Sampling and Data Collection
We developed a self-administered questionnaire for all students enrolled in the medical training programs at the University of Cape Town (UCT; years 1-6) and Walter Sisulu University (WSU; years 1-5)* in 2005 and 2007, respectively. These settings were selected to capture the racial, ethnic, geographic, cultural and socioeconomic diversity of South African medical students and the communities served by these medical centers. UCT and WSU are in an urban and a rural area, respectively, on opposite sides of the country. The former school is located in one of the two wealthiest South African provinces, where annual per capita disposable income is US$3,282, with 32% of the population living in poverty; the latter school is in one of the poorest provinces, where per capita income is US$1,081, with 72% of the population living in poverty. In South Africa, most medical students attend medical school within their home province. Regarding race and ethnicity, UCT is a historically white university, whose student population reflects the greater number of whites living in the Western Cape, whereas WSU is a historically black university, reflecting the greater number of Africans or blacks living in the Eastern Cape. (36), (37) We believe these schools encompass South Africa's diverse medical student population.
Arrangements were made with faculty members and lecturers to designate an appropriate time to administer the questionnaire. Following an explanation of the purpose and intention of the study, informed consent was obtained from students. The questionnaire was administered during a required course for each year cohort and took approximately 20 minutes; responses were anonymous. We excluded students if they were absent when the questionnaire was disseminated. Class rosters were used to determine the underlying population size and overall survey response rate.
Survey Development and Measures
The survey consisted of five domains: social and demographic characteristics; knowledge of the country's abortion law; attitudes and beliefs about abortion provision; medical curriculum and training in abortion services; and future intentions pertaining to abortion provision. This study focuses primarily on students' …
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Publication information: Article title: Attitudes and Intentions regarding Abortion Provision among Medical School Students in South Africa. Contributors: Wheeler, Stephanie B. - Author, Zullig, Leah L. - Author, Reeve, Bryce B. - Author, Buga, Geoffrey A. - Author, Morroni, Chelsea - Author. Journal title: International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. Volume: 38. Issue: 3 Publication date: September 2012. Page number: 154+. © 2009 Guttmacher Institute. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.
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