VANCOUVER, Washington — Motherhood, a traditionally joyful time for women, is not so for many in Africa. The continent consistently faces the burden of disease, political strife and economic instability. Women also often face social pressures that endanger them further. Marriage and childbearing usually occur when girls are barely teenagers, making pregnancy an emotional and physical burden. Preventable complications during pregnancy and delivery threaten the lives of both the mother and child. Additionally, abortion laws throughout the continent vary, making termination an even more difficult option.
Cultural stigmas often prevent discussion on abortion, yet, much like HIV (which is also stigmatized), the practice of abortion must be confronted so that they are performed safely. The legality of abortion varies throughout Africa, sometimes with somewhat subjective reasons. The Guttmacher Institute identifies six categories that the countries of Africa fall under concerning their degrees of abortion legality.
The most severe category, under which fourteen countries fall, identifies abortion as completely prohibited, even in cases involving saving the life of a woman. The second category, containing eight countries, allows abortion only to save the life of a woman. The third category, with eighteen countries, permits abortion if a woman’s physical health is threatened (as well as her life). The fourth category, with nine countries, allows abortion to protect a woman’s mental health (as well as her physical health and life). The fifth category, which only Zambia falls under, permits abortion on socioeconomic grounds (as well as physical and mental health reasons). Lastly, the sixth category, under which only Cape Verde, South Africa, and Tunisia are classified, allows abortion without any restrictions concerning reason.
The New York Times reports that in the two years following the legalization of abortion in South Africa, “the number of deaths among pregnant women who underwent the procedure fell precipitously.” However, while this news is promising, local taboos prevent healthcare providers in other African countries from following South Africa’s example.
The Guttmacher Institute found that in Uganda, which only permits abortion to save a woman’s life, 23 percent of women go to traditional practitioners for abortions. The number is even higher in Burkina Faso, which allows abortion if a woman’s physical health is endangered. Forty-two percent of women seek abortions from traditional practitioners.
Additionally, a slightly lower number of women attempt to perform abortions themselves. Neither traditional nor self-induced abortions are safe options for women: approximately 1.7 million women each year require hospitalization as a consequence of complications from unsafe abortions.
First and foremost, introducing contraception to men and women can reduce abortion rates and abortion-associated complications. While contraception is sometimes condemned, it must be understood that abortion is now becoming a more costly and dangerous form of contraception, says the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
The Guttmacher Institute also suggests that even without changing the laws of some countries, abortion services should be safe and available for those who do fall under the specific conditions for abortion, stating, “a liberal abortion law does not ensure the safety of abortions.” South Africa, for example, does not restrict the reason for a woman to have an abortion; however, sanitary facilities and trained doctors are not always available. According to the Pulitzer Center, the country’s capacity for abortions does not meet the demand by women. This has led to a rise in illegal abortions simply because they are more accessible.
While some countries have more expansive abortion laws, the whole of Africa must strive to insure the health and safety of women and children and reproductive rights. While abortion will remain a key facet of family planning, incorporation of contraception could prove safer and more cost-efficient, saving women from unwanted pregnancy and disease.
– Bridget Tobin