LAGOS, Nigeria – In Nigeria, more than 760,000 abortions are performed each year and between 3,000 and 34,000 women die annually from risky and illegal abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute and the Nigerian government. Figures vary widely since these underground abortions are done in complete secrecy.
Abortions in Nigeria are legal only in the case when a pregnant woman’s life is at stake.
Safe abortions have a low rate of complication, but those provided by people with inadequate training or in an unclean location can cause hemorrhaging, infection or perforation of the bowels and uterus, or death.
Women in Nigeria receive abortions from providers that exist in what has been described as a shadow economy. Abortions are completely unregulated and providers are often not trained.
Women can buy cheap, homemade abortifacients from street herbalists or go to clinics where an abortion can cost as little as $12, a price, local women say, that suggests that the procedure carries high risks and will likely be unsafe.
Olasurubomi Ogedengbe, professor and ob-gyn at Lagos University Teaching Hospital, describes the reality of a Nigerian abortion. The law “does not give guidelines about who can do it, where it can be done, until what gestational age. With that law, a butcher can do an abortion and say it was to save a woman’s life.”
Though abortions occur primarily in secrecy and the jail sentence for providing an illegal abortion can be up to 14 years, it is accepted that the procedure is extremely common for women in all economic strata.
Even though abortion is restricted in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the rate of the procedure on the continent is higher than in places such as the United States where it is legal. Sub-Saharan Africa has 29 procedures for every 1,000 women, higher than the 19 per 1,000 women in the United States.
While in the U.S., there are .6 deaths for every 100,000 abortions, the rate is 460 deaths per 100,000 procedures in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Lagos, Nigeria’s capital, half of deaths during pregnancy are caused by unsafe abortions, in a country that has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world at 545 per 100,000 live births.
Dr. Bose Adeniron, the Director of Family Health in the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Health, says people recognize the problem with unsafe abortions. She states, “We all know that septic abortion precisely has a lot of impact on maternal mortality in Nigeria.”
Despite this acknowledgment, except for a small number of abortion-rights advocates, abortion is considered an ingrained taboo. According to a 2012 Gallop poll, Nigeria is the second-most religious nation in the world. Widespread Muslim and Christian religiosity plays a key role in the stigma surrounding abortion.
Some politicians worry that broaching the abortion issue will undermine their efforts to promote contraception.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan pledged in 2012 to increase contraceptive funding by $33 million and encouraged states to give out free contraception in public clinics. Catholic organizations protested the move.
In 2013, Imo, a southern Nigerian state, passed a law permitting abortions in the case of rape, incest, or when the mental and physical well-being of the pregnant woman was at stake. The Catholic Medical Practitioners Association, however, protested and the law was repealed.
Limited access and use of contraception has led to 33% of Nigerian women reporting that they have experienced an unplanned pregnancy. Over half of those seeking abortions in Nigeria are under the age of 25, and 63% are not married.
A 2005 study revealed that only 50% of young Nigerian women knew what contraception was and only 11% had ever used a modern method. Since this study, figures reveal that percentages have only climbed to the mid-teens for use of family planning methods.
In a country where 63% of people live on less than one dollar per day, legal restrictions, social stigma, and financial barriers to contraception and abortion keep Nigerian women at serious risk.
– Kaylie Cordingley
Sources: Al-Jazeera, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, PubMed