Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Morocco walk back conservative abortion laws, will save thousands of women

Despite stringent laws across Africa, 6.4m abortions take place every year.

KENYA is making what looks to be moves towards easing its abortion laws, allowing abortions to take place under certain conditions. 

Local media reports recently stated that the country’s Health Cabinet Secretary, James Macharia, announced that the Government planned to reintroduce guidelines that would allow women to procure abortion from qualified medical personnel under certain conditions. 

Currently the Kenyan constitution allows abortion but only when the life or health of a woman is in danger and in cases of emergency. However estimates from the Ministry of Health and the African Population and Health Research Centre show that at least 465,000 women in Kenya put their lives in danger every year by seeking unsafe abortions. Of these, almost 120,000 are hospitalised while 2,800 die every year.

This announcement comes as other African nations look set to reconsider their stringent abortion regulations out of concern for the welfare of their women. 

In Mozambique in June, a new penal code came into force which decriminalised abortion in the country. The new law specifies that abortions have to be carried out in recognised and designated health centres by qualified practitioners and that termination must be carried out within the first 12 weeks but in case of rape, the period is extended to 16 weeks. The earlier law prohibiting abortion, except in cases where the mother’s life or health is endangered, dates to the late 19th century, when the mainly Catholic Portuguese controlled the country.

Morocco looks set to do the same. In March King Mohammed VI ordered the laws restricting abortion in the north African country to be amended, allowing it in cases of rape, incest, danger to the mother’s health or foetal malformation. A revised law is expected soon after the completion of consultations on the matter. 

Meanwhile in Malawi, a bill was published in July with plans to liberalise the country’s 164-year-old abortion law. Currently abortion is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in jail in Malawi, unless the woman’s life is at risk. This criminal status pushes about 70,000 Malawian women to have backstreet procedures every year. According to government figures 31,000 of these result in complications, including death. 

Maternal deaths

So not only is post-abortion care costing the government a huge amount of money (in Malawi’s case $1million a year) but it is also a significant contributor to maternal deaths. This can be seen all over Africa. 

Currently there are only four countries in Africa where abortion is permitted without restriction; Cape Verde, South Africa, Mozambique and Tunisia. This means that even though over 6.4m abortions happen on the continent every year, only 3% of these happen under safe conditions because of the limitations imposed by legislation. 

In 2008 the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 14% of all maternal deaths on the continent - approximately 29,000 women - were due to unsafe abortion. For those who survive, there can be complications afterwards - the WHO estimates that about 1.7m women in Africa are hospitalised annually for complications of unsafe abortion.

Despite this, 14 African countries would rather a woman’s life be risked than permit her to have an abortion, and though some African countries take these factors into consideration -  permitting women to have abortions to protect their sanity, finances or health - women will still choose alternative options, fearing backlash from law or society.

Perhaps the examples set by Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Morocco will be able to start a less conservative trend and address the dinosaur laws and social conditioning that put so many women at risk. 

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