The Ethiopian abortion law was changed in 2005, in order to try to curb the high number of women dying because of unsafe abortions. Abortions are still under the criminal code, but exceptions are made in cases of rape or incest, serious fetal deformities, if the woman is under the age of 18, or suffers serious physical or mental disabilities which make childcaring difficult. A key element, which makes the Ethiopian law unique in an African context, is that healthcare providers are obliged to accept without question a woman’s word regarding rape, incest, and her age. This however creates a grey zone, where women can lie about their reason to abort, or health workers can lie on behalf of the women in order to give them access to a safe abortion. Health workers become the “gatekeepers” of access to safe abortions, both concerning information about the possibility of having an abortion, and (post) abortion care.
The Ethiopia we know today, boasts a long history of being home to several chiefdoms, religions, nationalities, and ethnicities. The earliest abortion law we can trace is part of the Fetha Nagast, a legal code from the 13th century, forming the basis of family law and religious affairs for Christians in Ethiopia. In the Fetha Nagast, it says about abortion that “if a woman conceives and wants to abort the unborn child in her womb, she shall be beaten and exiled”. It also highlights the man’s role in a potential abortion: “If a man makes a woman abort with poison and lies with her, he must remain outside the church for the rest of his life or in danger (if he is not on the verge of death) must he be deemed worthy of receiving the Holy mysteries, because he has committed the three greatest sins: fornication, homicide, and sorcery”.
In 1930, a penal code restricting all forms of abortion access came into effect. According to Articles 381 to 385 in the Penal Code, carrying out an abortion was punishable for the pregnant woman, as well as the person performing it. Women could be punished with imprisonment for one to three years and a smaller fine, whereas middlemen and abortionists could be imprisoned for between one month and one year, and in some cases between 15 and 30 years. Additionally, those carrying out abortions were fined large sums.
The Penal Code of 1957 was in place until 2005. The 1957 Penal Code only allowed for abortion if the pregnant woman’s life was in danger. With this law, women and abortion providers continued to face fines and prison sentences if procuring, performing, and consummating an abortion. The 1957 Penal Code departed from the Fetha Nagast and 1930 Penal Code that deemed all abortions illegal. In 1957, Article 533 opened up for exceptions in cases of “an exceptionally grave state of physical or mental distress”. Cases such as rape, incest, and extreme poverty were potential grounds to free the abortion-seeking woman of her charges.
In 2005, the law was altered to permit abortion under aforementioned circumstances. This change came about by framing the issue of abortion as a public health, and not women’s rights, issue. By maintaining the law under the penal code, abortion is signaled as being an illegal action, whilst being a health service provided by medical centers and trained health workers.
Part of framing abortion as a public health issue, was to reduce the rate of maternal mortality. Since the Ethiopian abortion law was liberalized, more abortions are carried out in medical facilities, and fewer women die because of clandestine and dangerous abortions, and receive better post abortion care.
That does not mean that all Ethiopian women have access to safe abortions – unsafe abortions still take place. Organizations such as IPAS work on the ground in Ethiopia to inform women and health workers and to achieve broader abortion access all over the country, which includes training of health care professionals in more districts.
Written by:Tilla Solli for The Women's Museum of Norway
Blystad, A., Haukanes, H., Tadele, G., Haaland, M. E. S., Sambaiga, R., Zulu, J. M., & Moland, K. M. (2019). The access paradox: abortion law, policy and practice in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zambia. International Journal for Equity in Health, 18(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12939-019-1024-0
Guttmacher Institute. (2017, March 3). Induced Abortion and Postabortion Care in Ethiopia. https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/induced-abortion-ethiopia
IPAS. (2013). Interpreting and Implementing Existing Abortion Laws in Africa. https://www.sexrightsafrica.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/African-abortion-laws-compendium-from-the-African-Union-December-2013.pdf
The Criminal Code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia 2004, Proclamation No. 414/2004 (9 May 2005), Section II, Articles 545 – 552.
Wada, T. (2010). Abortion law in Ethiopia: a comparative perspective. Mizan Law Review, 2(1), 1–32. https://doi.org/10.4314/mlr.v2i1.55618