US-Based Religious Conservatives Groups Lobby to Restrict Abortion in Africa

By Azeezat Okunlola | Jul 4, 2023

Following the historic overturn of Roe v. Wade, conservatives have moved to lobby for abortions restrictions in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions in the world because women there experience social stigma for having children before marriage.


After the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the national right to an abortion a year ago, efforts to legalise abortions and make them safer in Africa were thrown into disarray. President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone said his country would end abortion prohibitions "at a time when sexual and reproductive health rights for women are being either overturned or threatened."


Some American groups, however, felt emboldened to continue their work in Africa, particularly in predominantly Christian nations. Among these is Family Watch International, a Christian conservative NGO whose anti-LGBTQ+ position, anti-abortion activities, and "intense focus on Africa" led to its categorization as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre.


More than twenty African countries sent representatives to Uganda in April for a "family values and sovereignty" meeting that was organised in part by Family Watch International. The organization's Africa director is campaigning for the repeal of a law passed in 2005 that greatly increased access to abortion and significantly decreased maternal mortality in his own country of Ethiopia.


"It's kind of like the gloves are off," Sarah Shaw, head of advocacy at MSI Reproductive Choices in the United Kingdom, a global supplier of reproductive health services, said in an interview.


After Roe v. Wade was overturned, religious conservatives were empowered to advocate for abortion restrictions in Africa. Abortion rights activists in Africa were shaken by the Supreme Court's decision a year ago to remove the national right to abortion.


The president of Family Watch International, Sharon Slater, made these claims at a lecture to the African Bar Association in September, where she claimed that donor countries were pursuing a "sexual social recolonization of Africa" by secretly introducing legal abortion, sex education, and LGBTQ+ rights.


In the words of Slater, "Sexual rights activists know if they can capture the hearts and minds of Africa's children and indoctrinate and sexualize them, they will capture the future lawyers, teachers, judges, politicians, presidents, vice presidents, and more," and thus the very heart of Africa.

The president of Malawi, a former head of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God organisation, attended her address.

In March, after successfully persuading Malawian parliamentarians to not examine a measure that would have legalised abortion under some circumstances, the U.S.-based Catholic group Human Life International reassured its supporters saying: "thanks to you, Malawi is safe from legal abortion."

The African Union established the right to abortion in 1999 for situations such as rape, incest, and when the mother's or fetus's life or health is in jeopardy.

There is an increase in the number of nations with lenient abortion policies. While Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, permits abortion only in cases where the mother's life is in danger, Benin legalised the procedure less than a year before the U.S. Supreme Court verdict.

Since the United States government is the largest global giver of international reproductive health assistance, experts in Africa are concerned that events in the United States could reverse gains in the availability of safe abortion treatments.


In 2020, the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based worldwide research and policy organisation, warned that such shifts might have far-reaching consequences for women of reproductive age in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is estimated that 77% of abortions, or more than 6 million annually, are unsafe.


The World Health Organisation said last year that unsafe abortions account for 16% of maternal fatalities in the mostly African sub-Saharan area, "with variations across countries depending on the level of restrictions to abortion."


Particularly vocal are those who oppose abortion in East African countries that openly address the problem of teen pregnancies but provide only limited access to legal abortions and inadequate sex education.


The East African Community, which consists of Burundi, the Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, is still debating a sexual and reproductive health bill submitted in 2021. A clause that would legalise abortions in cases of rape, incest, or endangering a woman's health has been criticised by certain Catholic and other conservative organisations.


Although Rwandan law permits abortions in some instances, the Protestant Council of Rwanda earlier this year ordered all health facilities owned by its member institutions to cease providing them.


On Tuesday, a Kenyan researcher remarked, "We are having a very strong anti-rights narrative," in a webinar on the worldwide impact of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.


Otieno reported that Kenya established a national reproductive health strategy a year ago that gave little emphasis to safe abortion treatment and that abortion doctors are frequently harassed.


Some women in Uganda turn to self-mutilation because of the stigma surrounding abortion availability, according to a rights watchdog.

Twaibu Wamala, director of the Uganda Harm Reduction Network, said, "We've seen a number of people losing their lives."

Although abortion is prohibited in Uganda, a licenced medical professional may perform one if they deem that the mother's life is in danger due to the pregnancy. However, many medical professionals are afraid of legal liability and only provide post-abortion care, which may be too costly or come too late to save a woman's life.

Ethiopian civil society members have petitioned the government to look into a worrying trend: a rise in the number of women seeking medical attention after having an unsafe abortion and a decrease in the number of women seeking abortions in public health facilities.

Abebe Shibru, the director of MSI Reproductive Choices in Ethiopia, said that those opposed to abortion in Africa's second most populous nation are incited by outsiders and "consider the Supreme Court decision as fuel for them."