Nigeria’s Abortion Laws are due for a Review

Data from Nigeria’s ministry of health says the country accounts for about 512 maternal mortalities per 100,000 births—one of the worst in the world. Of this figure, death from unsafe abortions constitutes roughly 40 percent. A string of restrictive abortion laws in the country is forcing young girls to resort to crude methods to take out unplanned pregnancies. 

The situation is ironic for a country that is a signatory to many international treaties and laws that protect women’s rights. If Nigeria wants to improve its health outcomes, it must provide women freedom over their bodies. One such way can be by changing the restrictive abortion laws.

Many opposition groups centre their arguments on abortion being an immoral act. But they intentionally ignore it as the fastest way out of an unintended pregnancy.

The situation surrounding Nigeria’s abortion laws is ironic. The British colonial government instituted the current abortion laws in the 19th century. Well over 100 years later, the law still binds. Even more satirical is how abortion is unconditionally legal in the country that imposed the restrictive abortion laws in Nigeria. 

It is also interesting to know that while sections 228-230 of the criminal code roll out strict punishments for flouters of the abortion rule, a different part of the law allows the act. Section 297 permits abortion if it is done in “good faith” to preserve the mother’s life after considering her state. But the law is questionable. It does not say clearly who is fit to perform the procedure and who determines the health state. Questions like if the threatened health condition is only physical or encompasses mental and psychological are open-ended. Such vagueness in interpreting the law opens up debates.  

The legislature must revise the constitution to speak clearly about women’s choices over their bodies. A century-old law is long overdue for a change and has no business functioning in modern times.

Typical of many African countries, moral grounds form the basis of many norms and social outlooks in Nigeria. This stance is not different from the view on abortions. Many opposition groups centre their arguments on abortion being an immoral act. But they intentionally ignore it as the fastest way out of an unintended pregnancy. 

Opposition groups also use ideological attacks like preying on emotions and religious sentiments to sway unsuspecting people. Propaganda portraying abortion as 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 based on their values. If a woman decides she is not ready to carry on a pregnancy, she must be allowed to make that choice.

Civil society organisations should intensify awareness and sensitisation programmes. These enlightenment programmes can be training and capacity-building workshops for human rights advocates and the media. That way, the attitudes and beliefs which are the primary reasons for restrictive abortion laws can be modified. Organisations like the IPAS Nigeria Health Foundation are an example of successful advocacy initiatives that reframe the narrative on abortions. 

Studies have continuously proven that a thriving health system will positively affect a nation’s economy. The link is simple. A country with frail citizens will not operate at the total capacity needed to contribute to national growth. Some may argue that, in this case, the health benefits only favour women and may be overlooked. But how does a nation catering to only men’s well-being produce growth? 

Only equal attention to both men and women will unlock benefits for the country. These benefits include macroeconomic growth, employment, antipoverty efforts and societal well-being – all of the areas where Nigeria is experiencing stunted growth. 

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 medical professionals’ capacity to identify pregnancies for which the abortion law speaks. For context, the law permits abortion of pregnancies that “threaten” the mother’s health. The policy also allows for the safe and ethical management of abortions. But national health agencies must do more. The ministry must realise that reviewing the abortion laws will have positive health outcomes and economically strengthen the country. 

Access to safe abortion is a matter of reproductive rights and a crucial step towards empowering women to control their future. Nigeria must step up if it wants to stand on par with other advanced countries in a world that is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of human rights.

Claire Mom is a writing fellow at the African Liberty.