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Abortion: America’s move to overturn 49-year-old law sparks fresh agitations in Nigeria

By Chijioke Iremeka
04 June 2022   |   3:15 am
Notwithstanding the fact that there is no law legalising abortion and violence against the unborn child in Nigeria, both safe and unsafe abortions are allegedly taking place in the country for a number of reasons...

Following the move by the United States (US) Supreme Court to overturn its 49-year-old abortion law on the premise that it was a mistake and had caused the country a huge damage, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), medical and legal practitioners in Nigeria have renewed their opposition to the legalisation of abortion in Nigeria under any guise. CHIJIOKE IREMEKA writes

Notwithstanding the fact that there is no law legalising abortion and violence against the unborn child in Nigeria, both safe and unsafe abortions are allegedly taking place in the country for a number of reasons, which include the ambiguity of certain clauses in the country’s laws.

Nevertheless, the only practice that seems permissible under the Nigerian law is therapeutic abortion, an abortion conducted when the life or the mental health of an expectant mother is threatened by the pregnancy. Meanwhile, sex-selective abortion, which is the practice of terminating a pregnancy based on the predicted sex of the foetus, has long been in practice in the country, the fact that Nigeria is one of the countries with very strict laws against abortion notwithstanding.

Abortion, by way of definition, is the termination of a pregnancy by removal or expulsion of an embryo or foetus. It could occur without intervention (miscarriage), which happens in approximately 30 to 40 per cent of pregnancies. But when deliberate steps are taken to end a pregnancy for non-medical reasons, it’s an induced abortion.

Abortion in Nigeria is governed by two major legislations, which differ from each other depending on geographical location. While the Penal Code governs Northern Nigeria, the Criminal Code governs the southern part of the country. The country’s criminal law procedure is therefore divided between the northern and southern states of Nigeria. The abortion laws of the Criminal Code are expressed within Sections 228, 229 and 230. While Section 228 states that any doctor providing a miscarriage to a woman is guilty of a felony and liable to up to 14 years imprisonment, Section 229 says any woman obtaining a miscarriage is guilty of a felony and may be sentenced to imprisonment for seven years.

According to Section 230 of the Code, anyone supplying anything intended for a woman’s miscarriage is also guilty of a felony and maybe sentenced to three years imprisonment.

In the same mode, the Penal Code, which operates in northern states, has its abortion laws contained in Sections 232, 233 and 234. These sections of the Penal Code are analogous to the Criminal Code, with abortion being allowed for the purpose of saving the life of the mother as the only exception.

The Code’s punishments for this include imprisonment, fine or both. The offences in these Codes are punishable regardless of whether the abortion was successful or not. The Guardian learnt that no provisions have been made in the Criminal Code making exceptions for the preservation of the mother’s life.

However, since abortion is only legal in Nigeria if it is to save the life of the pregnant woman, many women resort to unsafe abortion methods, leading to abortion-related complications and increasing mortality and morbidity rates in the country.

A research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute showed that an estimated 456,000 unsafe abortions are done in Nigeria on a yearly basis.

In a joint study carried out by the Society of Gynecologists and Obstetricians of Nigeria and Nigeria’s Ministry of Health, the number of women who engage in unsafe abortion was estimated at 20,000 each year.

Research has also revealed that only 40 per cent of abortions are performed by physicians with improved health facilities, while the remaining percentage are performed by non-physicians.

The Guardian further learnt that an estimated 1.25 million induced abortions occurred in Nigeria in 2012, equivalent to a rate of 33 abortions per 1, 000 women aged 15 to 49. The estimated unintended pregnancy rate was 59 per 1, 000 women aged 15–49. Fifty-six percent of unintended pregnancies were resolved by abortion.

Also, about 212, 000 women were treated for complications of unsafe abortion, representing a treatment rate of 5.6 per 1, 000 women of reproductive age, and an additional 285, 000 experienced serious health consequences but did not receive the treatment they needed.

Nonetheless, over decades, Nigeria’s abortion laws have mobilised several groups and movements with opposing ideas regarding the liberalisation of abortion laws and promotion of women’s rights. In the 1972 conference of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA), the first attempt was made to reform abortion laws in Nigeria but it failed due to lack of support.

In 1975, the National Population Council further advocated for women’s access to safe and legal abortion on the basis of promoting health and wellbeing of the mother.

Defended by the NMA and the Society of Gynecologists and Obstetricians of Nigeria (SOGON), this sparked off a controversy in 1976. In 1981, the National Council of Women’s Societies countered the SOGON’s proposed bill regarding termination of pregnancy, preventing it from reaching the House of Representatives.

The Council had stressed that more efforts should be put towards family planning education and prevention of pregnancy outside of marriage. In 1998, the Women’s Health Research Network of Nigeria emerged with the purpose of promoting research and encouraging other groups to advocate and unite around women’s health issues.

The Campaign Against Unwanted Pregnancy (CAUP) was created in 1991 with the mission of defending women’s sexual and reproductive rights and eliminating unsafe abortion.

In 1992, CAUP organised a reform meeting in which the Minister of Health and NMA president reviewed legislation regarding abortion. However, this reform was met with much opposition and was not successful.

An important goal of the CAUP was public health education. In 1997, they established the Action Group for Adolescent Health (AGAH), in which they trained medical students to become public educators on sexual and reproductive health.

From 1999 to 2004, CAUP organised many workshops and lectures on sexual health and women’s rights with the hope of empowering Nigerian citizens with the knowledge to lead a healthy lifestyle and advocate for change. The focus of CAUP since 2002 has been abortion bill reform.

A group of experts collaborated to outline changes in 2003. As at 2004, the bill was in its eighth stage of revision. But in 2015, the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPP) was passed into law. This act is meant to provide aid to survivors of sexual assault and relationship violence. According experts, the Act has been helping women to get the contraceptives they need to prevent unwanted pregnancy, the leading cause for abortion.

Against this backdrop, the recent move by the United States’ (U.S.) to upturn its 49 years law, which gave its women a constitutional right to abortion, has sparked off fresh agitations in Nigeria against legalising abortion under any guise.

A leaked opinion draft by Justice Samuel Alito of the U.S. Supreme Court, had submitted that the court would overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that granted women a constitutional right to abortion.

Alito’s draft offers an extraordinary window into the justices’ deliberations in one of the most consequential cases before the court in the last five decades.

In an initial draft majority opinion, Justice Alito insisted that the abortion law was given in error and has had grave implications on the American society, the reason the U.S. Democrat failed to make the right to abortion a federal law.

“Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences. And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division,” Alito’s document read.

Some medical experts told The Guardian that the law, which is being rejected in the U.S. after 49 years in practice, should send a signal to Nigeria that legalising abortion under any guise in the country would spell doom for Nigerian women, the health sector and the country’s flourishing population.

They called on the Nigerian policymakers to desist from activities that may overtly or covertly promote abortion in the country to guard against the U.S. experience.

Also, civil society organisations (CSO) in Nigeria have cautioned against the ratification of the VAPP Law across the states, citing certain sections of the law that makes abortion a legal act.

They urged the states of federation that have ratified the law to amend the grey areas in a manner that it would guarantee the sanctity of human life, which, they insisted, is the essence and object of the law.

However, some of the states in Nigeria that have domesticated the VAPP Law are Kaduna (December 1, 2018); Anambra (March 2018); Oyo (2016); Benue; Ebonyi (May 2018); Edo (June 2021); Ekiti; Enugu (May 8, 2019); Delta (October 2020); Osun; Ogun (2021); Cross River; Lagos (May 18, 2007); Plateau; Bauchi (July 29, 2020; Akwa Ibom (June 2020); Abia (October 2020); Kwara (October 2020); Yobe (December 2020); Nassarawa (January 6, 2021); Jigawa (February 17, 2021); Kogi (March 23, 2021); Bayelsa (April 2021); Rivers (April 2021); Ondo (June 2021); Sokoto (July 2021); Adamawa (March 2021); and Imo (July 2021).

Referring to this, the Imo State Pro-lifers, an association of professionals including medical doctors, lawyers, activists and priests, among others, stated that certain laws being enacted in the country are targeted at legalising abortion.

Also, the Chairman, Global Prolife Alliance (GPA) and the Medical Director, Chidicon Medical Centre, Owerri, Imo State, Prof. Philip Njemanze, said the VAPP Act, especially the Imo State version, sponsored by Hon. Uju Onwudiwe (Igolo Njaba), is targeted at legalising abortion in the state.

According to him, Section 40(1), page 38 encourages abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy if applied under the pretence of emotional discomfort experienced by the woman.

“Every woman shall have the right to enjoy reproductive rights including the right to medical abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest and where the continued pregnancy endangers the physical, mental, psychological or emotional health of the mother,” Section 40(1) reads.

Njemanze lamented that in the law purportedly enacted for the prohibition of violence against persons, there is no section on definition of a person, saying that the poor conceptualisation of the law has shown that the “person” was not defined, wondering what protects that “sanctity of life” on which violence is inflicted in the law.

He gave a detailed medical definition of a ‘person’ who is the main object of the law, saying: “The law does not protect ‘life’ from its very scientific medical beginning from ‘conception to natural death.’

“This law must state that any laws that propose ‘violence or death’ against a ‘person’ not in accordance with the provisions of Chapter IV of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, which deals on fundamental human rights, is hereby repealed, rendered null and void and of no effect.

“This law should specifically state that the Imo State Law No. 7 2007 in (Section 18 (a-f), which legalises abortion, contraception, assisted reproduction and human ovarian egg-donation,’ is hereby rendered null and void and of no effect.
 
According to him, the Act may be cited as the ‘Imo State of Nigeria Violence Against Persons (Sanctity of Human Life Act) Law No. 12 of 2020’ and should read: “(A) The right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human being, and is the paramount and most fundamental right of a person; and that the life of each human being begins with fertilisation, cloning, or its functional equivalent, irrespective of sex, health, function or disability, defect, stage of biological development.

“Or condition of dependency, at which time every human being shall have all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood; and the House of Assembly affirms that the Imo State Government has the authority to protect the lives of all human beings residing in its respective jurisdictions.
 
“For purposes of this Act, the terms ‘human’, ‘human being’ or ‘person’ includes each and every member of the species Homo Sapiens at all stages of life, beginning with the earliest stage of development, created by the process of fertilisation, cloning or its functional equivalent.”

Njemanze, who is also the Chairman, Research Professors of Neurosciences, argued that the state’s VAPP Act was not well intended as it doesn’t ban the proliferation of ‘Imo Baby Factories,’ where babies are being killed and their organs taken for export to Western capitalist countries to provide organs for their infants with heart defects, kidney defects, liver and lung insufficiency.

He alleged that the law aims to provide aborted tissues and fetal parts for Western pharmaceutical companies for drug testing and cosmetics industry.

He further alleged that a certain foundation provides human ovarian eggs through Invitro-Feritilisation (IVF) clinics to supply over 100 million eggs needed for the Tissue Cloning Industry, especially the majority of the stem cell tissue cloning industry owned by a Western billionaire who sponsors these laws.
 
He stated that Section 16(1) of the law should be amended to read: “Any person who commits any form of abortion or use of infanticides, sale of human ovarian eggs or sperms, abandons the newborn or subjects human embryos to inhumane conditions including cold freezing for the purpose of sale, abandons wife/husband, children, aged parents or other dependents without any means of sustenance commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to fine not exceeding N500, 000 or to both fine and imprisonment.”

On his part, a Pro-lifer in Owerri Archdiocese, Rev. Fr. Justine, said the promoters of the law must know that nobody has the right to terminate any life given by God.

He said: “If we are living for justice, then it will start with the less privileged and the foetus are the less privileged. They are human beings and they didn’t put themselves there. You cannot say that it is a product of accidents because no pregnancy is an accident.”

Also, His Grace, Most Rev. AJV Obinna, the Catholic Archbishop of Owerri, Diocese, had cautioned the lawmakers against enacting the law, saying that the church would not entertain any indecent law that would destroy the moral fibres of the people.

“The lawmakers should bear it in mind that any law that is inimical to the traditional Catholic Christian faith, morals and standard as well as laws promoting abortion of lives, will not be tolerated and will be resisted,” he said.

A lawyer and human rights activist, Sunny Ekwowusi, said he and other like minds fought and defeated the law after its enactment due to a number of hidden agendas in it.
 
He said: “The last time, we, group of prolife lawyers visited the Bishop of Owerri Dioceses, we educated him on this attack on our religion and culture, and we were able to join forces with other stakeholders and ended the attack.
 
“The problem is that African culture and life are under serious attack. The western world has been sponsoring a number of bills and policies that are clandestinely targeted at destroying Africa’s strong morals, tradition and heritage. Abortion will never be tolerated in Nigeria in any form.”

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