Monday, January 21, 2008

Why Don't Prostitutes Abort Their Fetuses?

Since the mid-1990s, abortion has been legal in South Africa. But you wouldn't know it if you went to the dockside nightclubs where local prostitutes solicit foreign sailors. At any one time, there's always a handful of pregnant ladies hustling the seamen.

Pregnancy, childbirth, and children represent major burdens for most Cape Town dockside pros. Pregnancy changes the women's body shape (less sexually appealing), creates new physical discomforts (morning sickness, swollen breasts), and encourages women to stop drinking, smoking, or using drugs (though they often keeping doing these things). Childbirth takes the women out of action for a span of weeks or months, making it difficult to earn money. And the resulting children are their legal and moral responsibilities, demanding money and time to keep them alive and healthy.

All of these things disrupt good business at the clubs, so why don't more prostitutes have abortions? Why do they still have these babies?

First, for moral and religious reasons. Many of these women grow up in Christian and Muslim families where they're taught that abortion is a sin. Though the women are willing to "sin" by selling sex, they're not necessarily willing to "sin" by aborting their fetuses.

Second, for short-term financial reasons. Since many of the women do not know who the father is, they try to place paternity on multiple clients so as to get access to multiple revenue streams. They hope that a number of guys will accept paternity and send money. It's a short-term ploy though, because the guys never give money for very long. But it can be long enough that the women think it will reap them benefits. If they do know who the father is—and he shows some interest—then she'll keep the baby on the assumption that it will inspire him to provide money. This rarely works out as hoped.

Third, for social reasons. Motherhood in the Cape Flats townships is common for teenagers and twenty-somethings, so having a baby entails few social penalties. Some folks may shake their heads, but the number of young unwed mothers in South Africa is so great that it's virtually normal for these women. Thus there's little shame in it.

Fourth, for family reasons. Most of these women do not have to actually raise the children themselves because they can dump them off on relatives, especially their own mothers. The tradition of grandmothers raising grandchildren is very strong in South Africa, because the mothers are often the breadwinners and need to work. So a young prostitute won't flinch about having a kid because she can often just hand it over to someone else.

Fifth, for spiritual reasons. Most prostitutes justify their business by saying that they're doing it for their kids. They understand that they've broken a major social taboo by selling sex, but they try to gain redemption by claiming that they're doing it for their children. That is, they claim that the obligations of motherhood are so important to them that they justify sex work. They pit one social value (motherhood) against another (don't sell sex) and believe that they're socially redeemable so long as they're doing it for their kids' upkeep.

Sixth, for temporal and economic reasons. Getting an abortion takes time. And money. Since the women work all night and sleep all day, going to the clinic during that daytime takes them out of their routine. But free abortions are only given after a number of consultations with the doctor. They must do some tests, talk with them, come again for the results, and then come again for the procedure. The fact that they have to make multiple visits during early daytime hours can be enough to make a pro hesitate until its too late. Of course, they could get it done quickly at a private clinic for about R1400 ($200), but the women often think of other ways they'd like to spend that kind of money (like drugs). Even though a child will cost much more in the long-run, the R1400 fee is often enough to make them hesitate till its too late.

So a myriad of factors influence why dockside prostitutes don't always have abortions. (Some do, of course, but plenty don't.) But what about the reason that they actually "want" the babies just because they want them? Sadly, this is almost never the case. Not while they're prostitutes, at least. (And it goes without saying that none of these children are actually "planned.")

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