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Why Nigeria needs to review abortion laws

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By Abraham Adekunle

The century-old abortion laws are long overdue for a change.

As protests and campaigns against strict abortion laws are rocking the Western world, the Nigerian space is also having its fair share of opinions. Many have urged the legislative chambers of Nigeria to revise the constitution to speak clearly about women’s choices over their body. At the forefront of this campaign are Human Rights activists and feminists, who believe that a woman has absolute rights over her own body. In fact, the century-old strict abortion laws have been said to be overdue for a change and that they have no business functioning in modern times.

According to data released by the Federal Ministry of Health, Nigeria accounts for about 512 maternal mortalities per 100,000 births. This is one of the worst in the world. Among these cases, unsafe abortions cause roughly 40 percent of these deaths. This is because a string of restrictive abortion laws in the country is forcing young girls to resort to crude methods to take out unplanned pregnancy. Ironically, Nigeria is a signatory to many international treaties and laws that protect women’s rights.

Nigeria refuses to change British law even when it’s been changed abroad.

Consequently, Nigeria should be at the forefront of fighting for the rights of women. If Nigeria wants to improve its health outcomes, it must provide women with the freedom over their body. One such way can be by changing the restrictive abortion laws. The origin of the abortion laws and their current dynamics make the situation ironic. The British colonial administration instituted the current abortion laws in the 19th century. More than 100 years later, Nigeria still operates these laws. However, it is satirical now that abortion is now unconditionally legal in the same country that imposed the restrictive laws in Nigeria.

There are also discrepancies regarding abortion in the Nigerian constitution. While Sections 228 to 230 of the Criminal Code Act lay down strict punishment for flouters of the abortion rule, a different part of the Act allows it. Section 297 permits abortion if it is done in “good faith” to preserve the mother’s life, after considering her state. This is questionable. The law does not say clearly who is fit to perform the procedure and who determines the state of health. Also, whether the threatened health condition is only physical or encompasses mental and psychological issues are open-ended questions.

The vagueness opens up the law to debates.

Because of this, legislature should revise the constitution to speak clearly about women’s choices over their body. Like in many African countries, moral grounds form the basis of many norms and social outlooks in Nigeria. The view on abortion is not different. Many opposition groups center their arguments on abortion being an immoral act, but they intentionally ignore it as the fastest way out of an unintended pregnancy. Some have cited abstinence as a way of combating unwanted pregnancy.

Opposition groups also use ideological attacks like preying on emotions and religious sentiments to sway unsuspecting people. Propaganda portraying abortions is dangerous, even when done safely, is another tactic used. Sometimes, they use intimidation approaches, such as exaggerating the psychological effects of abortion, to scare young girls away from the thought. Such a method is wrong. Those who indulge in these tactics must know that every human has the right to decide on the basis of their values. If a woman decides she is not ready to carry on with a pregnancy, she should be allowed to make that choice.

CSOs should intensify awareness and sensitization.

Civil Society organizations (CSOs) should intensify awareness and sensitization programs. They can be in the form of training and capacity-building workshops for human rights advocates and the media. By doing this, the attitudes and beliefs which are the primary reasons for restrictive abortion laws can be modified. Organizations such as the IPAS Nigeria Health Foundation are examples of successful advocacy initiatives that reframe the narrative on abortions. Efforts by the Federal Ministry of Health to produce a policy on the safe termination of pregnancy are laudable. The approach shows the government’s intent to build the capacity of medical professionals to identify pregnancy for those at high risk of complications and provide the best coarse of action.


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