By Kizito Makoye
DAR ES SALAAM, Jan 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tanzania's newly appointed prime minister has warned doctors who perform illegal abortions that they will face the sack and possible imprisonment in a crackdown on such operations which are believed to be happening widely across the country.
The government warning follows reports that doctors in public and private hospitals in the east African nation are routinely accepting payments to perform abortions, and studies that show high rates of complications from illegal abortions.
Abortion is illegal in Tanzania except when performed to save a woman's life and is punishable by up to 14 years in jail.
Tanzania has one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates, at 454 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) figures.
Government officials say most of these deaths are due to abortion-related complications. Women unable to access safe abortion services may try to terminate a pregnancy themselves or turn to illegal clinics which can endanger their lives.
Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa told doctors at Ruvuma Regional Hospital in the southern highlands to stop performing abortions on girls and women or they will be sacked and charged according to the law.
"These unlawful acts are totally unacceptable, doctors who entertain this behaviour will not be spared," he told doctors and medical workers during a surprise visit to the hospital this week. "I don't want to hear labour rooms are being used for terminating pregnancies."
HUNDREDS OF SECRET ABORTIONS
Majaliwa, who took office in November, told local health authorities to investigate and identify any doctors disobeying this order and take disciplinary action against them.
Hospital-based data suggests that hundreds of abortions are performed in secret in public and private hospitals in Tanzania with medical workers often playing a role in organising them.
Although the government has taken various steps to crack down on those who perform illegal abortions, critics say the authorities do not have the capacity to probe, control and prosecute those accused of the offence.
Studies have indicated that up to 60 percent of women admitted to public hospitals with suspected miscarriages have in fact undergone an abortion.
A 2012 survey conducted by Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences in Dar es Salaam indicated 33 percent of women aged between 15-24 who had had an abortion said it was done by an untrained practitioner.
In Tanzania and other parts of eastern Africa, there were an estimated 2.4 million unsafe abortions in 2008, 36 unsafe abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age, the highest rate of any region in Africa, according to the Guttmacher Institute which conducts research on sexual and reproductive health in Tanzania.
"The government must take real action against these abortionists, not just warnings. How many lives must be lost before these quacks are actually taken to task?" Gema Akilimali, a women's rights activist with the Tanzania Gender Network Programme, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Tim Pearce.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)