Abortion is illegal in Nigeria, except when it is necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman. There is no legislation regulating abortion access; abortion is legislated against depending on one’s geographical location. In the southern states, the Criminal Code is applicable, whereas the Penal Code is applicable in the northern states. Moreover, Sharia law is also applicable in some northern states. Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, adopted a Criminal Code in 2011 which allows abortion “to preserve the life and physical health of a woman”. This is an exception in a Nigerian context, but because the Penal and Criminal Codes criminalize both the woman seeking an abortion and the person who procures the abortion, women and abortion providers are unsure of the legality of abortion and fear legally terminating pregnancies in Lagos.
Sections 228, 229 and 230 of the Criminal Code punish abortion in the southern states:
228. Attempts to procure abortion.
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.
229. Attempt to procure own miscarriage.
Any woman who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, whether she is or is not with child, unlawfully administers to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or uses any force of any kind, or uses any other means whatever, or permits any such thing or means to be administered or used to her, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for seven years.
230. Supplying drugs or instruments to procure abortion.
Any person who unlawfully supplies to or procures for any person any thing whatever, knowing that it is intended to be unlawfully used to procure the miscarriage of a woman, whether she is or is not with child, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for three years.
The offender cannot be arrested without warrant.
For the northern states, Sections 232-234 of the Penal Code apply:
232. Causing miscarriage.
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 with both.
233. Death caused by act done with intent to cause miscarriage.
Whoever with intent to cause the miscarriage of a woman whether with child or not does any act which causes the death of such woman, shall be punished-
(a) with imprisonment for a term which may extend to fourteen years and shall also be liable to fine, and
(b) if the act is done without the consent of the woman, with imprisonment for life or for any less term and shall also be liable to fine.
234. Causing miscarriage unintentionally.
Whoever uses force to any woman and thereby unintentionally causes her to miscarry, shall be punished-
(a) with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine or with both, and
(b) if the offender knew that the woman was with child, he shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine or with both.
Abortion is criminalized with a hefty fine and punishable with imprisonment; up to 7 years for the pregnant woman and up to 14 years for the abortion provider. Considering the wording of the Criminal Code Section 228-230, which reads “whether she is or is not with child”, abortion providers and the pregnant woman also face imprisonment if attempting an abortion when the woman is not certified pregnant.
Abortions, whether they are legal or illegal, are subject to intense social stigma in Nigeria. Nevertheless, they occur and are common. An estimate from 2012 puts the annual abortion number at 1.25 million in Nigeria. That means 1 in 7 pregnancies are terminated. With abortion being criminalized and for the most part illegal, the majority of these abortions are clandestine and unsafe, performed by quack doctors, by the women themselves, or other unqualified abortion providers. As a direct result of abortion being an illegal medical procedure and abortions taking place in unsafe environments, maternal mortality in the country is amongst the highest in the world and over 30% of all maternal deaths in Nigeria are linked to unsafe abortions.
The Criminal and Penal Code are remnants of 19th century British colonial rule. Whereas provisions of the Criminal Code governing the south are based on Section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861 of England, those of the Penal Code in the north are based on Scottish Common Law. Although abortion has been legal in England and Scotland since 1967, the Nigerian law appears to be static and has not been subject to change.
In 2005, Nigeria was amongst the African countries signing the Maputo Protocol, which states that abortion is a human right. However, the country is yet to implement the treaty.
Although the Maputo Protocol was ratified in 2005, the Nigerian government has not prioritized its incorporation into the laws of the country. Where the government fails its women, various organizations fill the void and provide women with healthcare and family planning services.
There have been attempts to legalize abortion in Nigeria, lastly in 2012. The 2012 attempt to legalize abortion in one of the Nigerian states was met with such resistance from common people and organized anti-abortion and religious groups that it was repealed in 2013 and the State Governor issued an official apology. Yet, a study from 2009 found that around 80% of Nigerian lawmakers acknowledge that unsafe abortion practices is one of the main reasons for the country’s high maternal mortality rate. However, only 20% of them support legalizing measures.
There is still movement to amend the current legislation and allow abortions. Two associations, the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) and the Society of Gynaecology and Obstetrics of Nigeria (SOGON) are in the front. At an annual conference in 2018, SOGON called out the need for legalization of abortion in Nigeria to ensure maternal health.
Written by: Tilla Solli for The Women's Museum of Norway
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