Abortion is illegal in Uganda, except for when the pregnant woman’s life is at risk if the pregnancy continues. Article 22(2) of the Ugandan Constitution of 1995 reads: “No person has the right to terminate the life of an unborn child except as may be authorised by law.” The law that authorizes abortion is section 224 of the Penal Code from 1950: “A person is not criminally responsible for performing in good faith and with reasonable care and skill a surgical operation upon any person for his or her benefit, or upon an unborn child for the preservation of the mother’s life, if the performance of the operation is reasonable, having regard to the patient’s state at the time, and to all the circumstances of the case.”
With abortion access not being a guaranteed right, Ugandan women seek out other, unsafe abortion options, either procured through traditional methods or self-induced. In 2013, over 1 in every 10 pregnancies ended in an abortion. This is a little higher than in the rest of Eastern Africa. About 50% of pregnancies are unintended; a quarter of these ended in termination. Although the maternal mortality rate has halved between the years of 1995 and 2015, 343 out of 100,000 Ugandan women die due to preventable pregnancy-related complications each year. Clandestine and unsafe abortions account for an estimated 1 in 4 maternal deaths in the country every year.
The Penal Act stipulating abortion as a crime, dates to 1950 and colonial rule. Herein are the criminal sanctions for having an abortion outlined. The Ugandan Constitution of 1995 does not specify any new laws pertaining to abortion access. Thus is the Penal Act of 1950 the authority on lawful abortions.
The Penal Code Act of 1950, sections 141-143 and 212 outline abortion as a punishable act:
141. Attempts to procure abortion.
Any person who, with intent to procure the 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, commits a felony and is liable to imprisonment for fourteen years.
142. Procuring miscarriage.
Any woman who, being with child, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, unlawfully administers to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or uses any force of any kind, or uses any other means, or permits any such things or means to be administered to or used on her, commits a felony and is liable to imprisonment for seven years.
143. Supplying drugs, etc. to procure abortion.
Any person who unlawfully supplies to or procures for any person any thing, knowing that it is intended to be unlawfully used to procure the miscarriage of a woman, whether she is or is not with child, commits a felony and is liable to imprisonment for three years.
212. Killing unborn child.
Any person who, when a woman is about to be delivered of a child, prevents the child from being born alive by any act or omission of such a nature that if the child had been born alive and had then died, he or she would be deemed to have unlawfully killed the child, commits a felony and is liable to imprisonment for life.
Section 224 of the same Code Act decriminalizes abortion under certain circumstances:
224. Surgical operation.
A person is not criminally responsible for performing in good faith and with reasonable care and skill a surgical operation upon any person for his or her benefit, or upon an unborn child for the preservation of the mother’s life, if the performance of the operation is reasonable, having regard to the patient’s state at the time, and to all the circumstances of the case.
However, in 2006, the Ministry of Health recommended to permit abortions in cases of severe fetal abnormalities, if the pregnancy is result of sexual violence or incest, if the woman is HIV-positive or has cervical cancer. These National Policy Guidelines and Service Standards for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rightswere updated in 2012. Nevertheless, the rules and regulations concerning abortion care are ambiguous, leaving health care staff unable to provide abortions on judicial grounds, fearing legal consequences. Thus, post-abortion care (PAC), care after an abortion that leaves the woman in need of medical care to prevent permanent damage and death, is the only abortion-related treatment that health care providers can provide without fear of prosecution. Only half of the women who need PAC in Uganda are able to reach the facilities.
PAC services continue to be the reproductive health guideline proposed by Ugandan authorities. Large parts of the Ugandan populace are highly religious, with around 80% identifying with the Christian faith. Faith-based institutions, such as the Catholic Church, actively oppose increased abortion access and heavily take part in influencing the abortion discourse in the country. Although there are conservative and liberal fractions opposing each other concerning abortion, the discussion is not yet mature to tackle the question of abortion available on request.
Written by:Tilla Solli for The Women's Museum of Norway
CEHURD & Center for Reproductive Rights. (2016, July). Facing Uganda’s Law on Abortion: Experiences from Women & Service Providers. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from https://www.reproductiverights.org/sites/crr.civicactions.net/files/documents/Uganda-Abortion-Law-Experiences.pdf
Center for Reproductive Rights. (2022, January 18). Uganda’s Abortion Provisions. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from https://reproductiverights.org/maps/provision/ugandas-abortion-provisions/
Guttmacher Institute. (2018, September 6). Abortion and Postabortion Care in Uganda.Retrieved February 24, 2022, from https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/abortion-and-postabortion-care-uganda
Kagaha, A., & Manderson, L. (2020). Power, policy and abortion care in Uganda. Health Policy and Planning, 36(2), 187–195. https://doi.org/10.1093/heapol/czaa136