Reproductive awareness and recognition of unintended pregnancy: young women, key informants and health care providers perspectives in South Africa

Background: South Africa has a liberal abortion law, yet denial of care is not uncommon, usually due to a woman being beyond the legal gestational age limit for abortion care at that facility. For women successfully obtaining care, time from last menstrual period to confrmation of pregnancy is signifcantly longer among those having an abortion later in the second trimester compared to earlier gestations. This study explores women’s experiences with recognition and confrmation of unintended pregnancy, their understanding of fertile periods within the menstrual cycle as well as healthcare providers’ and policy makers’ ideas for public sector strategies to facilitate prompt confrmation of pregnancy. Methods: We recruited participants from July through September 2017, at an urban non-governmental organization (NGO) sexual and reproductive health (SRH) facility and two public sector hospitals, all providing abortion care into the second trimester. We conducted in-depth interviews and group discussions with 40 women to elicit information regarding pregnancy recognition and confrmation as well as fertility awareness. In addition, 5 providers at these same facilities and 2 provincial policy makers were interviewed. Data were analysed using thematic analysis. Results: Uncertainties regarding pregnancy signs and symptoms greatly impacted on recognition of pregnancy status. Women often mentioned that others, including family, friends, partners or colleagues noticed pregnancy signs and prompted them to take action. Several women were unaware of the fertility window and earliest timing for accurate pregnancy testing. Health care providers and policy makers called for strategies to raise awareness regarding risk and signs of pregnancy and for pregnancy tests to be made more readily accessible. Conclusion: Early recognition of unintended pregnancy in this setting is frustrated by poor understanding and awareness of fertility and pregnancy signs and symptoms, compounded by a distrust of commercially available pregnancy tests. Improving community awareness around risk and early signs of pregnancy and having free tests readily available may help women confrm their pregnancy status promptly.