On the 24th of June 2022, the U.S Supreme Court took the decision to officially reverse Roe v. Wade- the legal case which enshrined the right to abortion into law. The legal precedent which had been upheld for almost half a century in the US no longer existed.
In a statement for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences. And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division. It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”
This decision means abortion rights will no longer be available in the majority of the country, taking healthcare in the United States several steps back. For Nigeria and the rest of the world, this decision may have damaging consequences.
When Sharon* was 20, she found out she was pregnant. A student at one of the public tertiary institutions in Nigeria, Sharon could barely afford to get by without her parent’s help, “I didn’t know the first thing about raising a child, I couldn’t afford it and it just seemed unfair to bring a child into struggle.”
Sharon describes her abortion as an easy decision. “I didn’t struggle with guilt or feel like I had done something wrong. I just wanted to get back on track as quickly as I could,” but this doesn’t mean it was easy for Sharon to get the medical attention she needed as she lived in Nigeria, where abortions were largely illegal. “I had to ask a friend who asked a friend, who asked someone else. Eventually, I found somewhere but I had to pay five thousand Naira just to get the phone number and address of someone who could get it done.”
Like many Nigerians who seek abortions, Sharon had to get hers done at a backyard clinic. “When I got to the so-called clinic, it was just an old house in a really old compound. The living room was converted into a waiting room and one of the bedrooms was the consulting room where I spoke to the person who carried out the procedure.”
Despite Nigeria’s strict abortion laws, in 2017 a PMA survey revealed that between 1.2 million to 2 million Nigerian women between the ages of 15 – 49 had abortions. More than 6 out of every 10 abortions carried out in Nigeria are considered most unsafe and about 11% of women had to seek care at a health facility following perceived complications.
“There was no talk, the person who carried out the procedure didn’t say anything about what it’ll be like, he just asked me to lay down on a really old gurney that was almost too small and began poking,” Sharon recalls. “I remember how painful it felt and I kept screaming through it all, that irritated the person carrying out the procedure and he asked me if he was there when they were giving it to me. There was no post-abortion care either. After he was done, he led me to a dusty room to lay down and while I was there, he came in with antibiotics and blood supplements which he asked me to take for two weeks. That was it.”
For many women like Sharon, Nigeria’s strict abortion laws leave them with almost no option, encouraging the rise of these backyard clinics. “I wasn’t going to have a baby in 300 level, I know many other girls who did the same thing, some even more than once,” Sharon explains. “When you grow up Nigerian, you get used to your parents threatening to throw you out if you get pregnant and you do everything in your power to avoid that. If I had that baby, I wouldn’t be where I am today, and I wouldn’t have been able to offer that child the life they deserved.”
Nigeria’s abortion laws prevent women from accessing basic healthcare unless the pregnancy is considered an immediate risk to the woman’s life. The conservative nature of society doesn’t help either as abortions are considered taboo and are associated with loose women. “I remember thinking about how I can never let anyone know I had an abortion. I used a fake name at the clinic I went to, even the girl who finally linked me to the clinic doesn’t know my real name,” says Sharon. “But as time went on, I realized abortions are more commonplace than everyone lets on.” The resulting secrecy from the stigma on abortions only leads to more problems, and in extreme cases death. Research estimates that Nigeria records up to 6,000 abortion-related deaths yearly. “The clinic wasn’t clean. I remember the “doctor” telling me on the phone to get a roll of tissue paper and a big pack of cotton wool, meaning he didn’t even have these things available. It was desperation that made me still go through with it and I was really worried about the safety of the procedure.”
Coupled with Nigeria’s criminally underfunded health system, unregulated abortion leaves room for quacks and uncertified doctors to thrive in their makeshift clinics. “Abortions aren’t going away, no matter what you try to do, people will find a way. There are people who have had repeat abortions, even with the strict laws people continue to find a way,” Sharon states confidently. The demand keeps the underground industry running with procedures that should be carried out in sterilized hospitals happening in bedrooms and even shops.
What Are The Implications?
Speaking on the Roe v Wade case, Sarah Shaw, global head of advocacy for Marie Stopes Reproductive Choices (offering safe abortions in Nigeria and 36 other countries) explained that decisions made in the United States have an impact “far beyond their borders.” Shaw opined that “while this vote may embolden the anti-choice movement around the world, it has also motivated the global community to reassert the right to choose.”
In January 2017, Donald Trump reinstated the Mexico City Policy, also known as the global gag rule, which prevented foreign non-governmental organizations from receiving funding from the U.S if they “provided abortion counseling or referrals, advocated to decriminalize abortion, or expanded abortion services.” The policy required foreign NGOs to certify that they will not “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning” with non-U.S. funds in order to receive financial assistance from the U.S, including U.S. global HIV and maternal and child health (MCH) assistance. With the overturning of Roe v Wade, policies like the global gag rule can be fully applied, requiring NGOs providing abortion services to either begin cutting costs or stop offering abortion services to continue receiving funding.
Roe v Wade may have terrifying ripple effects in countries like Nigeria which already has terrifying abortion laws. Speaking to Devex, Alexandra Johns, the executive director of the Asia Pacific Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights described the overruling as “a first step to further erode access to abortion.” A ban on abortion rights in a country like the United States will only make a solid case for lawmakers who believe abortions should be illegal. Anti-abortion laws are also invasive, denying women the right to seek safe, regulated abortions which should be a provision of standard healthcare. Having children as a consequence of one’s actions or inactions is barbaric and shouldn’t be up for discussion in 2022.