Abortion is legal but restrictive in Nigeria. Therefore, there is the need to review the law to include other aspects. These were the opinions of key players in the country’s healthcare and legal systems during a media training workshop for journalists in Abuja recently.
The training workshop which was put together by an American non-governmental organisation (NGO), Ipas Nigeria, was aimed at improving the capacity of journalists in reporting issues of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.
In a presentation titled: “Abortion and the Law”, Ipas’ Acting Country Director in Nigeria, Mrs. Hauwa Shekarau, said unsafe abortion was a silent scourge as the nation’s abortion laws were grossly inadequate.
Making copious reference to sections 232 and 233 of the Penal Code law, Shekarau disclosed that the criminal and Penal codes were based on a law which was passed almost 150 years ago and “is no longer responsive to the magnitude of unsafe abortion and its complications. (The English Offences Against The Persons Act 1861). According to section232 of that law, whoever voluntarily causes a woman with child to miscarry, shall if such miscarriage be not caused in good faith for the purpose of saving the life of the woman, be punished with imprisonment for fourteen years,” while section 233 says: ‘Any person who, with intent to cause the miscarriage of a woman, regardless of whether she is pregnant or not, does any act that causes her death is liable to imprisonment for fourteen years.’”
The Ipas boss explained that the phrase: “Any person” used in the sections does not place women’s health as the exclusive preserve of health providers. All that the law requires of any person to do is to exercise“reasonable care and skill,” stressing that the law has failed to protect women from unsafe abortion in the hands of unqualified persons.
In an exclusive chat with our reporter, Shekarau further averred that the penal and criminal code allows access to abortion only when the life of the woman is in danger.“If you look at the way the abortion law is crafted, it doesn’t even qualify who can provide the service of carrying out an abortion. It says any person. It says whoever. It doesn’t even provide access to safe abortion. The law doesn’t protect women’s health in the sense that from the way and manner it is crafted, anybody can perform the act provided he/she carries it out with reasonable care/skill and in good faith. That is the only ingredient that is required for anybody to do it for a woman whose life is in danger.”
She pointed out that a woman who gets pregnant as a result of rape or incest would want to terminate such a pregnancy. “Not everyone would have the courage to keep a pregnancy that arises from rape or incest but here they are forced to keep that pregnancy by reason of the definition of the law that prevents access to abortion. Under other circumstances except where the life of the woman is in danger, what this women would do is to go to quacks who are most of the time living behind the alleys and in clandestine places so that they can quickly get what they want and move on. In most cases these women don’t live to tell the story. Some of them die. Some of those who live to tell the stories sometimes are left with injuries for the rest of their lives.”
Shekarau was however quick to clarify that Ipas was not calling for abortion to be legalized in Nigeria. “We are not saying that abortion should be legalized for no just cause. When women have genuine reasons and you deny them the opportunity to terminate such pregnancies, they look for other discreet ways to do it and in so doing they die. Is it not better for them to have what they want and be alive and go to make sure it doesn’t happen again? One of the things recommended is that when a woman goes for an abortion she is empowered with information on how to manage her fertility before she lives. She is told what and what not to do so that she can prevent an unwanted pregnancy. That way she makes sure that it doesn’t happen again. So, even though currently we have a law that is restrictive on abortion abortions are going on daily.”
In another revealing presentation titled: “Health Systems Response to Maternal Mortality from Unsafe Abortion, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist with the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital, Godwin Akaba, heaped the alarming rate of maternal deaths arising from unsafe abortions at the door steps of the government.
Akaba disclosed that unsafe termination of pregnancies constitutes 13 per cent of maternal deaths in the country. “More than 456, 000 unsafe abortions are done in Nigeria every year.”
He enumerated the factors associated with increased morbidity and mortality from abortion in the country to include: restrictive laws, lack of access to safe abortion services and lack of access to contraceptive and use. Akaba advocated for improved health financing, saying it remained at its developmental stage in the country.
In a comparative presentation titled: “Paradox of our time”, former Ipas Country Director, consultant gynaecologist, Ejike Oji, presented a tale of three countries, namely; Italy, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Oji explained that contraceptive prevalence rate in 2012 for Italy stood at 60 per cent, while that of Nigeria was between 10 and 11 per cent, and Saudi Arabia was 32 per cent. He equally noted that maternal mortality rate for the country was increasing at an alarming rate following deaths arising from unsafe abortions.
In a related development, a recent study by Guttmacher Institute and the University of Ibadan, on the incidence of abortion in Nigeria, showed that 1.25 million abortions were performed in the country in 2012, compared with the 610,000 abortions estimated to have occurred in Nigeria in 1996.
The study revealed that increase was due not only to greater population size, but also to an apparent rise in the abortion rate. The estimated abortion rate was 33 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–49 in 2012. Although this rate is greater than the 1996 rate (23 per 1,000) estimated in a previous study, the most prudent conclusion may be that the abortion rate has increased slightly, as the two rates were calculated using different approaches.
Agreeing with Oji, Dr. Akinrinola Bankole, Director of international research at the Guttmacher Institute and the study’s lead author, said “These findings make it clear that not only is abortion common in Nigeria, but that unsafe services are putting women’s health and lives at risk. Unwanted pregnancy is the root cause of most abortions. Nigerian women need access to high-quality family planning services to reduce rates of unintended pregnancy and the unsafe abortions that often follow.”
According to the study, Nigeria has low levels of contraceptive use. As a result, about one-quarter of the 9.2 million pregnancies that occurred in the country in 2012 were unintended. More than half (56%) of these unplanned pregnancies ended in abortion.
Challenges of the Law on Abortion
Whereas Nigeria is signatory to an array of international human rights instruments which affirm in clear terms the aspirations of enhancing maternal health & rights, Nigeria also has an array of laws reflecting aspirations in direct variance to what these international instruments espouse.
Most customary laws do not prescribe age of marriage & has to a large extent encouraged a high incidence of child marriage. Until the recent Child Rights Act, there was no clear legal provision on age of marriage. CRA prescribes 18 years.
The complicit silence of the law in many areas where it is expected that the law would directly & expressly intervene to secure the rights of the vulnerable is another major challenge.
Although Nigeria ratified Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), it has not incorporated it into national laws. Its provisions cannot be accessed by victims of violations.
Access to abortion services is particularly important for women and girls who are victims of Sexual Violence, rape and incest.
There is a need for a review of our restrictive abortion laws due to the Human Rights implications of unsafe Abortion.
Lack of political will on the part of Government will only continue to send our women to their early graves in large numbers despite being signatories to so many International and regional treaties that promote women’s reproductive health and rights such as the African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa.
We must review our abortion law. We do not necessarily have to make it an all-comers affair because of our sensitivities, but we must show empathy for women who have been raped and impregnated as a result of rape and incestuous relationships.