Abortion Laws in Africa

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Abortion Law in Africa is an important subject that deserves attention. When examined closely, there are significant disparities in how various African countries address the challenges of abortion. Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa are three countries that give a fantastic foundation for such an examination. This is partly owing to the fact that there is such a clear disparity between the abortion laws practiced in these countries, even though they are all African countries. It is not uncommon for people to be tempted to believe that more liberal abortion laws are better for women’s reproductive health because they contribute to lower abortion-related mortality rates. However, to truly appreciate such a viewpoint, it is necessary to evaluate the manifestations resulting from a country having illiberal abortion laws.



According to Isabella Okagbue, “abortion in Nigeria is illegal and carries a heavy jail sentence — up to 14 years imprisonment — unless it is performed to save the life of the pregnant woman” (Okagbue, 1990, p. 197). There are undoubtedly many ethical motivating factors for why one could make a compelling argument for the amendment of Nigeria’s illiberal abortion laws. A woman may opt to have an abortion for a variety of acceptable reasons, including failure of contraception, psychological and financial inability to care for a child, a deep-seated fear of rejection, being too young, and so on (Okorie and Abayomi, 2019, p. 165). The list of causes is vast, but arguably one of the most heartbreaking ones is a pregnancy caused by rape. Not only does having such stringent abortion laws reflect a country’s disregard for women’s reproductive rights, as well as their rights to bodily integrity and autonomy, but it is also dangerously harmful to women’s reproductive health. Illiberal abortion laws directly correlate with increased abortion-related mortality rates across the country.

Owing to the country’s restrictive abortion laws, many women in Nigeria turn to dangerous backstreet abortion procedures, which in many cases may result in abortion-related complications; “these abortions contribute to the soaring rates of maternal deaths and morbidity in the country” (Adebimpe, 2021, p. 469). It is tragic that Nigerian abortion legislation neglects to consider such circumstances, therefore inadvertently fostering clandestine abortions and the potentially fatal consequences that come with them. According to research writers P. Chibueze Okorie and Olubusola Adebayo Abayomi, there is still difficulty acquiring reliable data for statistics connected to abortions in Nigeria because of the lack of official figures due to the covert nature of abortions in the country (Okorie and Abayomi, 2019, p. 165). In the 2019 study, it was reported that unofficial estimated statistics indicated that

over 1,000,000 abortions occur in Nigeria annually, representing about 33 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age. It has also been asserted that illegal abortion is responsible for about 11% of maternal death in Nigeria and 50% of such deaths involve adolescents and young women (Okorie and Abayomi, 2019, p. 165).

Even though Nigeria has one of the highest maternal mortality rates globally, the need for legal reform to allow for and promote safe, legal abortions as a means of fighting the unsafe abortion issue in Nigeria receives startlingly little consideration (Adebimpe, 2021, p. 470-1). In Nigeria, abortion regulation is established in terms of two major criminal acts: the Penal Code and the Criminal Code. The fundamental contrast between the two, according to Isabella Okagbue, is that, although the Criminal Code applies to anybody operating to cause a woman’s miscarriage “whether or not she is with child,” the Penal Code only pertains in circumstances when a woman is “with child” (Okagbue, 1990, p. 197);


Section 232 of the Penal Code provides as follows:

Whoever voluntarily causes a woman with child to miscarry shall if such miscarriage be not caused in good faith for the purpose of saving the life of the woman, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to fourteen years or with fine or both’ (Okagbue, 1990, p. 198).

Section 228 of the Criminal Code provides:

Any person who with intent to procure miscarriage of a woman whether she is or is not with child, unlawfully administers to her or causes her to take any poison or other noxious thing, or uses any force of any kind, or uses any other means whatever is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for fourteen years (Okagbue, 1990, p. 198).

According to Razaq Justice Adebimpe, it is critical for Nigeria to liberalize its abortion legislation in a way that is consistent with the country’s treaty commitments; “The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (African Women’s Protocol) was also ratified by Nigeria, in 2004” (Adebimpe, 2021, p. 481). The Protocol declares women’s reproductive rights to be “fundamental rights and requires states to promote these, particularly the right to choose concerning childbearing, child spacing, family planning, and so forth, devoid of coercion and to seek to eradicate every form of violence and prejudice against women” (Adebimpe, 2021, p. 481). Thus, Nigeria must amend its legislation per its treaty commitments to provide women with reproductive autonomy and the freedom to choose whether to carry pregnancies induced by rape to term.



Dr. Cheluchi Onyemelukwe writes that “Analyses of Google searches suggest a greater interest in abortion pills (e.g., Misoprostol) from countries like Nigeria and Ghana, where abortion laws have historically been more stringent”(Onyemelukwe, 2018, p. 34). Ghana’s abortion laws are only moderately permissive. Abortions are lawful in Ghana if they are conducted by licensed and qualified health workers in an approved institution in situations of; “rape, incest, fetal deformity or sickness, or “defilement of a female idiot,” or if they are performed to protect physical or mentalhealth (Incidence Of Abortion And Provision Of Abortion-Related Services In Ghana., 2020, p. 1). Although Ghana’s abortion regulations are considerably more permissive than those in Nigeria, abortion remains highly stigmatized in Ghana. Therefore, there may still be a larger frequency of clandestine abortions. An official fact sheet study produced by the Guttmacher Institute reported that

Many women in Ghana seek illegal abortions, which vary widely in terms of safety. Complications from unsafe abortions contribute substantially to Ghana’s high maternal mortality, which was estimated at 310 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2017 (Incidence of Abortion And Provision Of Abortion-Related Services In Ghana., 2020, p. 1)

The following information was also included in the fact sheet report

Despite efforts by the Ministry of Health and the Ghana Health Service to expand postabortion care and safe abortion services, several factors impede use of these services. These include stigmatization of abortion, poor knowledge of abortion’s legal status among the public and medical professionals, misperceptions about the safety of legal abortion and inadequate access to services (Incidence Of Abortion And Provision Of Abortion-Related Services In Ghana., 2020, p. 1)

In Ghana’s instance, the Ghanaian government should aim to protect women’s reproductive rights and lower the number of backstreet abortions. The general public’s lack of understanding about the legality of abortion, in particular, should be addressed. The government should make sure that women are better aware that abortion is lawful in Ghana under certain conditions and spread information on how and where to seek safe and legal abortion services (Incidence Of Abortion And Provision Of Abortion-Related Services In Ghana., 2020, p. 2) Furthermore, the national government should engage in more education-based programs and expand access to better contraceptive services so that women are better aware of their alternatives.


South Africa

South Africa is often recognized as Africa’s most liberal country regarding reproductive rights protection. South Africa legalized abortion in 1996 as part of the Choice in Termination of Pregnancy Act; “which gives women of any age or marital status access to abortion services upon request during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and in certain cases, extends access to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy” (Guttmacher et al., 1998, p. 191). South Africa is regarded for its progressive abortion laws rooted in its legal systems constitutional protection of women’s autonomy and freedom of choice.

Under the Choice Act, the circumstances in which abortion can be done are widened while the period of pregnancy is split into three for the purpose of an abortion. Abortion is permitted on-demand until the end of the twelfth week of gestation. A medical practitioner or a ‘registered midwife’ who has, in addition, undergone prescribed training can perform an abortion, and neither spousal nor parental consent is needed to have it in the circumstances (Adebimpe, 2021, p. 483).

A research report published by Women Deliver reveals that after 1996, the number of women in South Africa who had clandestine abortions dropped, this was particularly among younger women (‘The Impact of Legal Reform of Abortion in South Africa’, 2016). According to an analysis of national statistics, “abortion mortality dropped by more than 90% between 1994 and 2001” (‘The Impact of Legal Reform of Abortion in South Africa’, 2016). Despite South Africa’s liberal abortion laws, there is still a market for backstreet abortions. However, the country’s liberal abortion laws may have played a role in the country’s lowered abortion-related mortality rates, and this is particularly noticeable when compared to Nigeria’s overly strict abortion laws and Ghana’s moderately permissive abortion laws.

Ultimately, the belief that more liberal abortion laws are better for women’s reproductive health by leading to lower abortion-related death rates remains a compelling and ethical viewpoint to espouse. While Ghana and Nigeria have a prominently high number of backstreet abortions, the market is also rather prevalent in South Africa, despite the country’s liberal abortion regulations. However, findings revealed that countries with effective contraception services as well as substantial recourse to safe and legal abortion services have a reduced prevalence of unsafe abortions, whilst underground abortion continues to be a more severe health concern in regions across the globe where abortion is still forbidden or limited (Morhee and Morhee, 2006, p. 85). The contrasting findings between Nigeria and South Africa are an excellent example of this.




Adebimpe, R. justice (2021) ‘Liberalization of Nigeria’s abortion laws with a focus on pregnancies resulting from rape: An empirical analysis’, African Human Rights Law Journal, 21(1), pp. 469–493. doi:10.17159/1996-2096/2021/v21n1a20.

Guttmacher, S. et al. (1998) ‘Abortion Reform In South Africa: A Case Study Of The 1996 Choice On Termination Of Pregnancy Act’, International Family Planning Perspectives, 24(4), pp. 191–194. Available at: www.guttmacher.org/journals/ipsrh/1998/12/abortion-reform-south-africa-case-study-1996-choice-termination-pregnancy-act (Accessed: 4 December 2021).

Incidence Of Abortion And Provision Of Abortion-Related Services In Ghana. (2020) guttmacher.org. Guttmacher Institute. Available at: www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/incidence-abortion-and-provision-abortion-related-services-ghana (Accessed: 16 December 2021).

Morhee, R.A.S. and Morhee, E.S.K. (2006) ‘Overview of the law and availability of abortion services in Ghana’, Ghana Medical Journal, 40(3), pp. 80–86. doi:10.4314/gmj.v40i3.55256.

Okagbue, I. (1990) ‘Pregnancy termination and the law in nigeria’, Studies in Family Planning, 21(4), pp. 197–281. doi:10.2307/1966614.

Okorie, P.C. and Abayomi, O.A. (2019) ‘Abortion laws in Nigeria: a case for reform.’, Annual Survey of International & Comparative Law , 23(1), pp. 165–192. Available at: digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/annlsurvey/vol23/iss1/7 (Accessed 16 December 2021).

Onyemelukwe, C. (2018) ‘Abortion law in nigeria’, BeyHealth Quarterly Journal, (2), pp. 34–38. doi:10.32644/BHQJ18.019.

‘The Impact Of Legal Reform Of Abortion In South Africa ’ (2016) Women Deliver. Available at: womendeliver.org/2016/impact-legal-reform-abortion-south-africa/ (Accessed: 22 December 2021).



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