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Nigeria - Abortion: Between law and human rights


27.12.2007     Several reports by the World Health Organisations (WHO) have shown that Nigeria’s Maternal mortality rate is among the highest in the world. The statistics released about two years ago confirmed that six maternal deaths occurred per hour in Nigeria, 140 per day, 4,200 per month and 800 in every 100,000 live births. Of 550,000 annual global deaths, Nigeria, according to reports, accounted for 50,000.

Today, these figures have risen. For instance, a recent research carried out shows that of 100,000 births in Nigeria, about 1,500 maternal deaths occur. Of this figure, unsafe abortion arising from unwanted pregnancies account for a good percentage.

The Federal Ministry of Health estimates that about 760,000 induced abortions occur in Nigeria annually. Of this estimate, about 20,000 Nigerian women, according to the Gynecologists and Obstetricians of Nigeria, die as a result of unsafe abortion, yearly.

Maternal death, according to WHO, is the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and the site of pregnancy, from any cause related to, or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management, but not from accidental or incidental causes.

On the other hand, induced abortion, according to Dr Boniface Oye-Adeniran, consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician at the University of Lagos college of Medicine, is the termination of pregnancy by a deliberate intervention. He contends that induced abortion is an extremely safe medical procedure when carried out by qualified personnel in line with the health policy guidelines.

Meanwhile, he describes unsafe abortion as the termination of pregnancy carried out by someone without the basic skills or training to perform the procedure safely, or a pregnancy terminated in a place that does not meet minimal medical standards, or both.

Medical experts agreed that in induced abortion such as miscarriages or spontaneous abortions which can result in complication, death rate is usually very low. But mortality, they say, is usually very high in unsafe abortion. Nigeria, according to reports, is one of the worst victims of unsafe abortion in Africa and the world in general.

Many reasons, according to medical experts, account for this high mortality rate in Nigeria. One of the reasons, according to Dr Femi Agbaje of the university of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH), is the restriction placed on abortion in Nigeria. He said that because abortion has been illegalised in Nigeria, most medical personnel refuse to carry out abortions because of the fear of the legal consequences. This, he stated, results in most women, especially those on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder patronizing quacks and unqualified medical practitioners for abortions, not minding the consequences.

Dr Agbaje cited as an example, a case in Lagos State about a year ago in which the father of a 21-year old lady sued a private hospital for conducting abortion on his daughter, using the illegality of abortion in Nigeria as a defence. The case, he recalled went in favour of the lady’s father.

On the illegality of abortions in Nigeria, Dr Agbaje said that it was wrong for government to outrightly abolish or illegalise abortion, because according to him, a woman’s reproductive health is part of her human rights. In other words, the ban on abortion, he argues, is an infringement on the women’s human rights.

Many other medical experts supported this argument. They contended that most of the deaths associated with unsafe abortions were as a result of the prevailing restrictive laws placed on abortion in the country. This restriction, they say, encourages most women to patronize unqualified medical personnel for procurement of abortion.

According to Professor Oye-Adeniran, “until we start seeing the woman’s reproductive health as part of her human rights, these deaths (from unsafe abortion) will continue to occur.”

This, he stated, was because “every decision to make on the reproductive health of a woman should be entirely has.”

Oye-Adeniran, who is also the executive director of campaign Against Unwanted Pregnancies (CAUP), therefore called on government to respect the basic human rights of women by ensuring that they have unfettered access to the reproductive health services, including abortion.

“Not only should government remove the legal barrier to abortion services, they should also ensure that safe and high quality abortion services are accessible to all women to the full extent of the law,” he said.

Dr Dayo Agbaje of the General Hospital Ikorodu, Lagos, in a telephone interview with The Tide also supported the argument that a woman has the reproductive rights to decide whether or not to have a child. He was, however, cautious on whether or not abortion should be legalised in Nigeria.

“It is true that a woman has the right to decide whether and when to have a child. But on the issue of legalising abortion, I am afraid that such a legalisation might have its own dire consequences on the nation.

Remember that Nigeria is a country where people abuse things and all privileges,” he stated.

Investigations have, however, shown that before now, there was no body of law known as the abortion law in Nigeria. In other words, the abortion law, was a 19th century legalisation inherited from the colonial administrators.

But while the United Kingdom has severally reformed the law, Nigeria is still holding on to it even 47 years after independence.

The question now is: should the abortion law in Nigeria be outlawed in the spirit of respecting women’s human rights?

The religious leaders, especially those of the Islamic and Christian leanings say no. Most religious leaders and clerics preach against abortion, which they say, is tantamount to committing murder.

According to Mr Musa Aminu, an Islamic Cleric, “abortion is a serious offence before the Almighty Allah. Both the person who commits abortion and the doctor that conducts it are liable to punishment by God, except they repent and seek forgiveness.”

Also speaking, Pastor David Roland of the Light of Life Church said that abortion was a crime against God and humanity, and therefore should not be encouraged.

“We preach against it in church, and I want to believe that Muslim Clerics too preach against it in Mosques. Therefore, government should not legalise the illegality,” he said.

But from these religious points of view, and the moral consequences of legalising abortion in Nigeria, how do we recouncile the restrictive laws on abortion with the women’s reproductive human rights which Nigeria subscribes to?