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AFRICA: Church Leaders An Obstacle To Preventing Maternal Deaths

Christi van der Westhuizen

ACCRA, Nov 12 2010 (IPS) - The resurgence in religious fundamentalism and the inordinate influence of certain church leaders over public health policy present major obstacles to the prevention of needless deaths and injuries of women from unsafe abortion on the African continent.

The growth of evangelical religion is reflected in ubiquitious religious imagery and texts. Credit:  Christi van der Westhuizen/IPS

The growth of evangelical religion is reflected in ubiquitious religious imagery and texts. Credit: Christi van der Westhuizen/IPS

This was one of the issues discussed at a conference with the theme “Keeping our Promise. Addressing Unsafe Abortion in Africa”, hosted Nov. 8-11 by Ipas with the support of Ghana’s health ministry in Accra. Ipas is a global, non-profit organisation promoting women’s exercise of sexual and reproductive rights.

More than 230 delegates, including cabinet ministers, parliamentarians and healthcare providers from 20 African countries, attended the conference.

Globally, 13 percent of maternal mortality is due to unsafe abortions. In Africa the average figure is one in seven maternal deaths but in some countries, such as Nigeria and Kenya, as much as 30-40 percent of maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortion.

More than half of the 67,000 women in the world that die each year from unsafe abortion are from Africa.

Even in countries such as Zambia and Ghana where laws allow access to abortion under certain circumstances, such as rape, incest and where pregnancy threatens the life or health of a woman, these laws are not being applied.

The non-implementation of existing laws is partly due to ignorance and prejudice among healthcare personnel and law enforcement officials and partly due to the negative influence of certain religious leaders, delegates at the conference heard.

“What we are seeing is an imposition of personal beliefs rather than people working towards the greater good of society,” says Dr Eunice Brookman-Amissah, Ipas vice-president for Africa and a former health minister in Ghana. It forms part of “the resurgence in religious fundamentalism”.

Ipas country director for Ghana, Dr Koma Jehu-Appiah, adds that, “Ghanaians tend to confuse religion with everything. Abortion is stigmatised as sinful. But you cannot use religion to solve public health problems.”

Attempts to liberalise restrictive penal codes inherited from colonial administrations have been circumvented by anti-abortion churches. In some African countries churches have a “stranglehold” on policymakers, according to Brookman-Amissah.

She cites the example of a Kenyan minister of health who announced that post-abortion care would be introduced to address the prevalence of death and injury. The Catholic Church attacked the minister publicly and her political fate was “sealed”.

The Catholic Church also opposes the use of contraceptives, which means “women are totally boxed in”. They have no other option but to risk their lives with unsafe abortion.

“This is a human problem. The church should come with a solution rather than just saying ‘no, no’,” insists Brookman-Amissah.

Similarly, in Nigeria the Catholic Church thwarted an attempt a few years ago to pass a law to create a reproductive health institute to do research, according to Dr Ejike Oji, Ipas Nigeria country director.

The Catholic Church misrepresented the draft law by calling it an “abortion bill” even though it did not contain any reference to abortion. A parliamentarian who was Catholic sabotaged parliamentary processes to ensure that the bill was rejected before stakeholders could adequately inform themselves.

In the Nigerian state of Imo an attempt to introduce safe abortion services for victims of incest and rape was blocked. Women who supported the bill were physically denied access to the legislature, Oji told IPS.

Now, a campaign is underway in Nigeria to change the law to withhold abortion even when the woman’s life is in danger – the only condition under which it is still allowed.

The Ugandan Joint Christian Council and the Nigerian Christian Coalition are aggressively lobbying their governments over the 2003 Maputo Protocol, which establishes the right to safe abortion in cases of rape, incest and where the mental and physical health of the woman is endangered.

These two bodies allege that the clause on abortion is a “Western import” despite it being drafted by Africans, according to Njoki Ndungu, director of the Centre for Legal Information and Communication in Kenya. The non-profit centre promotes humanrights.

Rather, Brookman-Amissah argues, much of the anti-choice activity springs from a “Western drive” externally funded and guided by especially U.S.-based fundamentalist Christian groups or individuals. One such group is Human Life International.

U.S. Republican Congress representative Chris Smith recently visited Nigeria and drafted a letter with local Christian fundamentalists attacking the Maputo Protocol.

Brookman-Amissah points out that, it “is not American women who are dying. This campaign is causing the deaths of African women.”

When the Ethiopian government amended its criminal code pertaining to abortion, an evangelical U.S.-based organisation provided graphic abortion videos for parliamentarians, says Dr Haile Gebreselassie, Ethiopian-based senior research and evaluation associate for Ipas.

Annie Nturubika, coordinator of the SOS Femme et Enfant Catastrophe (SOSFEC) based in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), says that church leaders in the eastern DRC still block access to abortion as they seem to think they “are holier than the Holy Spirit”.

This is despite local women traumatised by rape being unable to afford the exorbitant 200 to 250 dollars charged for abortion, which is allowed in cases of rape. When local women found out about much cheaper, non-surgical medical abortion, they “were delighted”, according to Nturubika.

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