A commentary on Unsafe Abortion in Africa

Unsafe abortion remains a major contributor to the unacceptably high levels of maternal morbidity and mortality rates that prevail in Africa. It also continues to be one of the formidable challenges to the achievement of Millennium Development Goal 5 of improving maternal health by 2015. This is despite the many meetings and conferences that have addressed the issue over the last four decades, one of the earliest being the IPPF Regional Conference on Family Welfare and Development in Africa, Ibadan, Nigeria, August/September, 1976, where I was privileged to present a paper entitled Abortion in Africa[1]. Perhaps the most recent meeting is the Ipas[2] sponsored conference in Ghana (November 8-11, 2010), entitled “Keeping Our Promise: Addressing Unsafe Abortion in Africa”.

The persistence of unsafe abortion in Africa is, ultimately, perpetuated by two key factors: (a) the restrictive laws against termination of pregnancy; and (b) the limited or lack of access to adequate abortion services. Criminalisation of abortion in majority of African countries is something inherited from the colonial laws, despite the fact that the law has since decriminalised the procedure in the colonial “mother countries” (United Kingdom 1967; France 1975; Italy 1978; Spain 1985; Belgium 1990). On the other hand, it can be observed that passing of laws for or against abortion has little effect on the numbers of abortions that take place; in fact, the only difference is that the patterns of morbidity and mortality associated with abortion change. Stringent laws against abortion will not deter women in need from going through with an abortion, the only thing such laws achieve is to push many of them to undergo unsafe procedures with consequent high rates of morbidity and mortality. The procedure of medical termination of pregnancy is simple, short and safe when undertaken in the open, by trained persons; however, carried out in secrecy, usually by unskilled operators, it is expensive, unsafe and life threatening.

Obviously, like many other freedoms- legalisation of abortion may be abused, when abortion becomes a primary method of birth control, as happened in the former USSR. Increased access to contraception since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has led to a reduction in the numbers of abortions in Russia. However, it should be realised that induced abortion may still be the only means of birth control for many women in some parts of Africa, i.e. women who have very limited access to contraception, including adolescents and youths who are denied not only the services but also information on sexuality, on moralistic grounds. For such women, the desire to do away with an unwanted pregnancy can be so intense that they will avail themselves of this last resort despite the law, or the attendant risk to their lives. Sadly, many of these women live in countries where penal codes do sanction abortion under certain conditions but they are unaware of this provision; or, for various reasons, they cannot access safe abortion services in their countries.

Evidence from the Demographic and Health Surveys, over the last three decades, shows that women (and men) in most parts of Africa have increasingly taken to contraceptive practice. For anyone who chooses to practice contraception the hope is that it would not fail her or him. The shock of the discovery that this is not so, though infrequent, can drive the hapless individual seeking termination of the pregnancy. For most people it follows logic that if contraception is acceptable, then consideration for abortion should follow where there is failure- this is why in many countries medical termination of pregnancy is an accepted second line of defence against unwanted pregnancy.

Finally, in addressing the issue of unsafe abortion particular focus is needed on ensuring equity in access to health care, especially for the poor and marginalised communities, who are the main victims of quacks in backstreet clinics. Despite the absence of supportive data at this moment, it is highly possible that in many African countries, considerably more induced abortions occur among the wealthier and more mature women than among the poor young single women, that are often reported from public institutions. It is the latter that sustain Africa’s high abortion-related maternal mortality rates, and who will make it impossible to attain national and international goals, if they are left ‘out of the loop’.

Related Link

On The Abortion Question

[1] Mati JKG. Abortion in Africa. In Family Welfare and Development  in Africa. Proceedings of IPPF Regional Conference, Ibadan, Nigeria, August/September,1976.

[2] http://www.ipas.org/Library/News/News_Items/Keeping_Our_Promise_Addressing_Unsafe_Abortion_in_Africa.aspx Conference co-sponsored by FEMNET, Ghana Ministry of Health, IPPF Africa Regional Office, Marie Stopes International and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. A BBC interview on this conference is available on http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/2010/11/101109_ghana_abortion_conference.shtml

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