Since the US Supreme Court overturned protections on abortion rights in the US last month, the controversial issue has been back on the global agenda — including in Africa.
Five days after the US ruled that there is no constitutional right to abortion, Tedros Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), described it as a setback.
However, the WHO chief said many world regions had strengthened the right to abortion over the past 40 years, adding that it’s more important than ever to protect that right.
“All women should have the right to choose when it comes to their bodies and health. Full stop.”
Tedros stressed that safe abortion is health care: “It saves lives. Restricting it drives women and girls towards unsafe abortions; resulting in complications, even death.”
Lobbying for safe abortions
The legal and medical standards defined by WHO aim to improve access to safe abortion and are supported by numerous NGOs working in Africa.
One of the most active organizations in abortion rights is the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), which aims to advance reproductive rights.
CRR advises African legislators and supports women’s organizations and families with money, know-how, legal protection and counseling.
These and similar organizations’ goals are to provide women with accessible and legal access to safe abortions, especially in Africa’s poorer, most populous countries.
The advocacy work is increasingly producing the desired effects and results in many African countries — for example, Benin.
After long and controversial debates, Benin’s parliament lifted many restrictions on women’s right to abortion in 2021 that had been in place until then.
Until last year, abortions were only allowed in Benin if the pregnant woman’s life was in danger or if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.
Benin thus joined the list of African countries that allow women to have abortions legally and safely under certain conditions. On the African continent, Tunisia, South Africa, Cape Verde and Mozambique have similar liberal legislation to Benin.
Sierra Leone and Lagos move to legalize abortion
Another country on the verge of partially legalizing abortion is Sierra Leone. President Julius Maada Bio recently introduced a bill aimed to that effect. The country’s parliament is currently debating the legislation in Freetown.
In addition to national legislative initiatives, other African countries also have projects at the local and regional levels that promise women access to safe abortion.
For example, the Nigerian commercial metropolis of Lagos plans to offer abortions in public hospitals.
The city of 15 million people could become a pioneer for liberal abortion rights in a country with enormous economic, cultural, and social disparities. For instance, some Nigerian regions have a powerful cultural and religious-based resistance to abortion.
In many African societies, the issue of abortion is still taboo. Opinions on the subject differ, as was the case when DW put the issue of abortion rights up for discussion in the youth program “The 77 Percent.”
It was noticeable that many young men who are critical of the liberalization of abortion laws in Sierra Leone took part in the debate.
“Human rights already apply to unborn children in the womb. These innocent children are crying out for brave men and women to defend their rights courageously,” Pender Aghogho, a DW 77 Percent social media user, said.
And another user named Simony Kuban concurred: “Our girls are having abortions, even if it’s not legal. So I reject this proposal by the president of Sierra Leone.”
Julius Bio’s proposal, he said, is “evil and barbaric.”
Banning abortion ‘not the solution’
According to the WHO, a ban does not lead to fewer abortions. DW’s fact check also concludes that abortions performed under unsafe conditions are by far a bigger problem.
In many countries in Africa, access to safe abortion remains highly restrictive.
According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, abortion remains illegal in eight countries. In Madagascar, for example, medical workers who secretly perform abortions on women face up to ten years in prison. Yet nearly 75,000 abortions are performed in Madagascar each year, according to CRR.
“We try to save the lives of pregnant women, even in countries where abortion is illegal,” Dr. Jean Kalibushi Bizimana, an obstetrics and gynecology consultant with Doctors Without Borders, told DW in an interview.
Bizimana said the medical charity organization does everything necessary to ensure women’s confidentiality and safety — a principle to which all doctors worldwide should be committed.