Abortion in Africa: Tracing Origins and Western Ideological Impacts

Illustration of a hand over African silhouette with chess pieces, symbolizing influence.

According to Medline Plus, an abortion is a procedure to end a pregnancy. The debate surrounding abortion is a moral one, not a medical one. Many people believe that abortions are morally wrong. According to a study carried out in the US, people who have an abortion are less likely to have a complication than people who have their wisdom teeth extracted.

Many people say that the debate of supporting a woman’s right to a safe abortion is a Western ideology and is not African. In fact, Nigeria has a law that is over 100 years old that criminalizes abortion. The law itself is older than the country and was inherited from the British.

Has the practice of abortion been a part of Africa or was it brought about by Western ideologies? To answer that question, we have to begin from where the law criminalizing abortion originates from – the British, i.e., the United Kingdom.

Historical Evolution of Abortion Rights in the UK

Abortion first appeared in English law in around the 13th century, according to an article by Abortion Rights, UK.

The law followed church teaching that abortion was acceptable until “quickening,” which, it was believed, was when the soul entered the fetus. The legal situation remained like this for centuries, but in 1803, the Ellenborough Act was passed, which stated that abortion after “quickening,” i.e., 16-20 weeks, carried the death penalty. In 1861, the Offences Against the Person Act was passed, where performing an abortion or trying to self-abort carried a sentence of life imprisonment. Some years after the Act was passed, Nigeria was invaded and then colonized by the British for 78 years, from 1882 to 1960.

And with colonization came Western laws; the abortion law was one of those laws. In 1967, the Abortion Act became law in Britain, legalizing abortion until up to 24 weeks, and under certain conditions. This happened seven years after independence, so the change in the UK law did not affect the 1861 law on abortion passed on to its past colonies and is what it still is in the Nigerian constitution to this day.

Currently, the UK has an abortion law that allows abortions up until the 24th week of pregnancy, on the grounds of

  • risk to the life of the pregnant woman;
  • preventing grave permanent injury to her physical or mental health;
  • risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family (up to a term limit of 24 weeks of gestation); or
  • substantial risk that, if the child were born, they would “suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.”

In this way, the abortion laws that we currently have are founded on Western religious beliefs, which were then made into laws that were passed down to us during colonization. We have come to adopt both the religion and the law as ours, although it was never originally ours. Abortion has always been a part of African culture; the history of abortion shows that the first recorded evidence of a termination of pregnancy is from the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus in 1550 BC. Black women of African descent in the Americas have also been said to have carried out abortions, especially during the slavery period, to avoid becoming slave-producing machines. These women brought their knowledge from the African communities they were stolen from, and most of the people sold in the transatlantic slave trade came from West Africa.

Western notions and laws on abortion have influenced global perspectives, including Nigeria, by serving as a reference point for discussions on reproductive rights and autonomy. The debates and legal frameworks in Western countries, precisely in America, have often been closely watched and, in some cases, adopted or contested by other nations. I would like to note here that America was also a British colony and, thus, also has the same influence of the early British laws on abortion.

The debates in America, especially the recent Hobb’s decision, has contributed to shaping the international discourse on the ethical, moral, and legal dimensions of abortion.

Influence of Western Laws on African Legislation

While Britain colonised 22 African states, France colonised 20, and both countries have improved their laws on abortion to reflect the human rights of women. British laws on abortion make abortion legal until the 24th week, while in France, the French president, Macron, has enshrined abortion rights in the constitution.

However, the old abortion laws that they left us with during colonization remain a thorn in the flesh of Nigerian women and one of the major causes of maternal mortality and morbidity. Many African nations inherited laws from our colonial past, where Western values were influenced by conservative Christian beliefs, which in turn influenced laws, including those related to abortion. Our laws on abortion are even worded the same way, pointing to the colonial affiliation. Christianity, particularly Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity, has played a significant role in shaping attitudes towards abortion in some African countries, such as Nigeria, Malawi, Uganda, and others. This influence is reflected in legal frameworks that may restrict or prohibit abortion. However, even within Christianity and Catholicism, there are still groups that believe in choice, such as Catholics for Choice.

Some other countries, such as the Republic of Benin, have reevaluated their abortion laws due to public health concerns. High rates of unsafe abortions and maternal mortality have shown the importance of more liberal laws to protect women’s health and rights. Abortion has become a political issue, rather than a personal health-care issue. There are two sides of the struggle, the anti-rights groups and the pro-choice groups. The anti-rights side believes that women should not have the right to choose what the outcome of their pregnancy will be, while the pro-choice side believes that the choice of a pregnancy outcome should rest solely on the person who is pregnant.

Republic of Benin’s Decriminalization of Abortion

Recently, the Republic of Benin decided to decriminalize abortion, which shows a shift away from Western ideologies towards a more contextualised approach. In a country like Benin, where contraceptive use is low and topics like contraception and abortion are considered taboo, there is a need for more access to safe abortion to reduce maternal mortality and increase knowledge about contraceptives and abortion.

In October 2021, Dr Véronique Tognifode, Benin’s Minister of Social Affairs, along with two other ministers who are also gynecologists, was instrumental in getting MPs to vote to legalize abortion in most circumstances, and they also had the support of Benin’s President, Patrice Talon. Her experience with treating patients for complications due to unsafe abortions was what made her advocate for the decriminalization of abortion. The country’s first female Vice President, Mariam Chabi Talata, said the new law was a great and necessary leap. She also emphasized that criminalizing abortion is harmful to women because abortion is a reality that cannot be ignored and a public health issue.

The legalization will lead to increased access to safe and regulated abortion services, which will potentially reduce unsafe procedures and associated health risks for women. It will also allow for better public awareness, to change the narrative about abortions as harmful or a taboo subject. However, it could also spark discussions about the societal perception of abortion and women’s autonomy over their reproductive choices.

Moving forward, Benin would benefit from establishing clear regulations, ethical guidelines, and education programs to address potential conflicts and ensure a comprehensive legal framework that respects diverse perspectives within the society. Public awareness campaigns and educational initiatives play a huge part in changing the narrative about abortions, breaking down stigma and debunking myths.

Medical Perspectives and Campaigns for Decriminalization

All over the world, medical bodies advocate for the decriminalization of abortion due to medical and public health considerations. Among these are the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), Planned Parenthood Federation of America, IPAS, and Doctors Without Borders.

In 1972, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) made the first attempts to reform abortion laws in Nigeria. In 1975, the National Population Council further advocated for women’s access to safe and legal abortion on the basis of promoting the health and well-being of the mother. Defended by the NMA and the Society of Gynecologists and Obstetricians of Nigeria (SOGON), this sparked a controversy in 1976. All these medical bodies advocate for safe abortion due to the public health concerns surrounding complications due to unsafe abortions. In 2017, the annual incidence of likely abortions in Nigeria was 41.8% per 1,000 women aged 15 to 49, which is nearly 1.8 million abortions.


In conclusion, abortion debates in Africa are influenced by Western ideas, especially British colonial laws adopted during colonization. These laws, based on conservative Christian beliefs, shape abortion attitudes in countries like Nigeria. Christianity, particularly Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity, impacts views on abortion, though there are diverse perspectives within Christianity. Recent shifts, like the Republic of Benin decriminalizing abortion, suggest a move away from Western ideologies. This change aims to improve public health by increasing safe abortion access and awareness about contraceptives.

Medical groups worldwide, including the World Health Organization and the Nigerian Medical Association, support decriminalization for health reasons. The interplay between Western influence, local beliefs, and evolving perspectives calls for nuanced discussions and awareness campaigns to challenge stigma and promote understanding of reproductive rights.

If you would like more information on how to access safe abortion, click here, and if you would like to speak to a counselor to support you through your abortion click here.

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