Illegal Abortion in Nigeria

Whither women’s health between unsafe abortion and the law?

“I am a graduate and a banker, but I’m afraid of getting married because I know that medically, I cannot bear children. I lost my womb at 15. I had an unsafe abortion which almost took my life but for God’s intervention I survived. “ This was how Esther Megide – a 26-year-old graduate who works in one of Nigeria’s fastest growing banks, started the story of her life.

Too many women have stories similar to Esther’s — and these women are almost all living in nations where abortion is illegal or extremely limited. According to the article, “Every year, a quarter of all unsafe abortions (approximately five million) are performed on adolescent girls aged 15-19 years.” And what are “pro-life” politicians and religious leaders doing about it? Encouraging abstinence until marriage and trying to further restrict abortion, of course!

But here’s the problem: Many of these girls do not have the ability to say no to sex. They have even less of an ability to negotiate sex and condom use after they’re married — and contrary to anti-choice mythology, not every married woman is open to having as many babies as God gives her. Indeed, countries where contraception access is lacking tend to have significantly higher maternal mortality rates, often because of multiple births and complications like obstetric fistulas. Not to mention complications from unsafe abortion.

The “pro-life” method of decreasing the abortion rate — telling women to save sex for marriage and blocking access to abortion and contraception — is not working. It has not worked, ever. But it has managed to kill and injure a lot of people.

Unsafe abortion constitutes a serious public health crisis in Nigeria . It is said to still be the cause of 33-40 per cent of maternal deaths. The current statistics on abortion indices in Nigeria estimated that 760,000 unsafe abortions are performed annually in Nigeria . Sixty per cent of induced abortions are performed by midwives, nurses, pharmacists, paramedics and women themselves, while physicians perform the remaining 40 per cent.

The outcome of these acts have done more harm than good as intended. Roughly, 142,000 women are treated annually for abortion-related complications.

While the term “illegal abortion” doesn’t sound pretty, it’s convenient to ignore what illegal abortion actually looks like in many countries:

In a presentation on the local instruments used by some traditional healers, Ejike noted: “The traditional healers insert the sharpened end of cassava stem into the crevices thereby perforating the uterus. At times it is said that some healers grind ginger, alligator pepper, local chalk and native alum together and apply it into the woman’s private part. Some others use the sharpened edge of Bahaman grass to do the work”.

The author of the article goes on to advocate for abortion rights for rape and incest survivors. Which is laudable, and I can understand her reasoning — baby steps — but it’s far from the ideal. And I’m not sure it’s particularly effective to position abortion rights as contingent on what a woman did or didn’t do. That is, if she didn’t consent to sex, then she’s a good girl who deserves access to a safe procedure. If she did consent to sex, then she’s a slut who should either be forced into childbirth, or should have to run the risk of death or injury in terminating her pregnancy. I would much rather see pro-choice advocates push for legal abortion for all women.

But her final quote, by Mohamoud Fathalla, is spot on:

[W]omen are not dying because we cannot treat them. They are dying because societies are yet to make decision that their lives are worth saving.


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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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14 Responses to Illegal Abortion in Nigeria

  1. prairielily says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but if these girls and women do not have the ability to say no to sex, doesn’t that mean that they’ve been raped? It seems to me that a rape exception would cover more women the more patriarchal a society is, right?

  2. Danyell says:

    I find it so unbelievable that anti-choice people are so gung-ho, that they’re blind to the fact that their tactics aren’t working! It’s one thing to not like abortion, but shaming women for having sex isn’t helping either.

    And prairielily, though I completely agree with your statement, a lot of those rapes tend to happen within marriage, and we still have people in the USA that don’t think rape within a marriage “counts”. *sigh*

  3. Jill says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but if these girls and women do not have the ability to say no to sex, doesn’t that mean that they’ve been raped? It seems to me that a rape exception would cover more women the more patriarchal a society is, right?

    Well, no. The feminist definition of rape is not the same as the legal one. Most of these women technically consent to sex — they aren’t physically forced or threatened with physical violence if they don’t comply. So it’s often not legally rape, although it is non-consensual and coercive. A rape exception would be meaningless for them.

  4. Fab says:

    [W]omen are not dying because we cannot treat them. They are dying because societies are yet to make decision that their lives are worth saving.

    that’s a great quote.

    but the question is, how do you convince a pro-lifer that a woman who kills a “baby” does not deserve death herself?

    many social conservatives believe in an eye for an eye, vindicative justice (a la the death penalty) so there’s a huge disconnect in the discussion.

  5. gordo says:

    A rape exception would be meaningless for them.

    I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but it can’t be said too often: women should be allowed to have abortions, even when they aren’t raped, and even when their health is not at risk.

    At the heart of the anti-choice movement is the idea that motherhood is the punishment for the sin of having sex. Most people who think this way are happy to grant exceptions for rape and health, because most people aren’t sadists. But legislation that takes the right to an abortion away still takes away women’s control over their own bodies and their own sexuality, even when there are limited exceptions.

  6. gordo says:

    Fab–

    First, you have to get past equating a fetus and a baby. Baby killing is wrong, plain and simple. So is killing elderly people. But a fetus is not an old man, and it’s not a baby. So any argument that starts with “the life of the baby” or “the life of the child” is dishonest.

  7. Fab says:

    true.

    but it’s almost impossible to say that to people who believe that as soon as the sperm touches the egg, human life has been created.

    i’m not really saying there’s an actual solution to this.

    just mentioning underlining division here.

  8. SansContrefacon says:

    What would be the best way to go in Nigeria, with regards to legalisation in your opinion Jill? The way I see it, a rape and incest exemption would be more likely to pass than than anything more liberal and could be considered the best bet since then at least some women would have access to the services, but that would legally enshrine the idea of forced pregnancy as being an acceptable medical form of slut-bashing and make it harder to bring in more liberal legislation later.

    I can’t see anyway to bring around the Catholics on this. Education, sure, but if pleasing God is more important than the facts not even that’d help. /musing on futility

  9. Thealogian says:

    There’s an article over at Alternet today about population control. The article is so-so, but what is truly amazing, and disturbing, are some of the comments on that “liberal” news source. One commentor said that “we” (I guess while males) should sterilize 75% of women world wide and that would solve our problems. The solution always seems to be, control women’s bodies, control the “baby making machines.” Yet, that very same article stated that in countries where healthcare is best and access to contraception is free, you have the lowest birthrates. Even in developing countries, where birth-control is made accessible, to women, where we can chose how and when to have children, women choose to have small families. Now, how does this relate to Nigerian (and other 2/3 world countries) anti-abortion/illegal abotion problems? Conservatives are saying: compulsory motherhood is the consequence for having sex (whether willingly or against your will). Population Control People (which can be either liberal or conservative) are saying, stop having babies (especially to developing world women, yet of course the reason for population control, resource management, fails to recognize that its American/European/Japanese people who use up most of the world’s resources, not Ugandans, etc). The key here is control–if you have save access to contraception you have less babies (population people) and less abortions (conservatives); I am not saying that abortion should be illegal once everyone has the exuse of contraception (mistakes happen, deformity is a real concern, health, etc). Yet, no body looks at the statistics, what’s really going on…they want to look to how their own preconceived sexist, racist, and classist opinions about “the other” –the “woman” who would have an abortion or lots of babies–and punish her for her difference, for her “stupidity” or “immorality.” These people have been in power too long; these people, this simple and uneducated opinions/assumptions should not rule the day. The US gag order on abortion providers in other countries is killing women in the developing world!

  10. Jill says:

    What would be the best way to go in Nigeria, with regards to legalisation in your opinion Jill? The way I see it, a rape and incest exemption would be more likely to pass than than anything more liberal and could be considered the best bet since then at least some women would have access to the services, but that would legally enshrine the idea of forced pregnancy as being an acceptable medical form of slut-bashing and make it harder to bring in more liberal legislation later.

    If a rape and incest exception is all they can get through, then I support a rape and incest exception. My view, though, is that pushing for the ultimate goal is almost always a better tactic than taking baby steps — it shifts the whole dialogue left, which is good. I think the marriage equality movement in the United States is a good example. Instead of taking “baby steps” and focusing on civil unions, they went straight for marriage, and now civil unions is the moderate position — something that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. I’d like to see pro-choice advocates do something similar.

  11. micheyd says:

    True, Jill, except that I don’t think civil unions is quite a comparable situation. Rape and incest exceptions seem entirely unenforceable – which seems like it would result in abortion being a) entirely unprocureable, or b) having a loophole in the law that is used by women with the know-how to get abortions for any reason. With civil unions, they’re certainly still unequal but are enough along the lines of marriage that we get reason to celebrate.

    I don’t pretend to have an answer about what should be pushed for in a country with such entrenched patriarchy, but I’m split on the rape/incest exception thing, because I think it’s just another way to shame and punish women.

  12. micheyd says:

    (pardon my grammar – been a long day)

  13. Scorpio says:

    Let’s quit perpetuating the notion that “God” “gives” women babies, ok?

  14. prairielily says:

    Thanks for responding, Jill. You’re right, and for some reason that didn’t occur to me on my own. I must have been having a stupid day.

    Of course, legalizing abortion won’t have an adequate effect on its own. It needs to go hand in hand with a number of woman-friendly policies, like access to education, access to contraception, and the general empowerment of women in society.

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