abortion laws?

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.

Recommendations

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.

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