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Benin liberalizes abortion law

November 10, 2021

Benin's parliament has voted to legalize abortion in most cases, becoming one of only a handful of African countries to do so.

A woman photographed from the side to hide her identity
Claudia experienced her cousin's illegal abortionImage: Katrin Gänsler/DW

Claudia can still remember when her mother forbade her from ever considering an abortion.

She was a 16-year-old school student in Cotonou, Benin's economic hub.

"She said: 'If you get pregnant, you have to have the child'. She would never have allowed me to get an abortion," Claudia, who is now 28, told DW.

For many years after that, Claudia said, she worried about accidentally becoming pregnant.

Abortion has long been a taboo subject in Benin, so much so that Claudia doesn't want to use her full name when talking about the topic.

But that could ease now that Benin's parliament has voted to legalize abortion in most circumstances. The amendment still has to be ratified by the constitutional court before it takes effect but that is considered a formality.

The new law makes it legal to terminate a pregnancy if it would "aggravate or cause a situation of material, educational, professional or moral distress incompatible with the interest of the woman and/or the unborn child."

African nations' strict abortion laws

This makes Benin a rarity in Africa. Only South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau and Tunisia have relatively liberal abortion laws, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global advocacy organization.

A map of Africa showing where abortion is legal and where it is prohibited

Under Benin's previous abortion law, which was passed in 2003, a woman can only terminate the pregnancy if her life is at risk, if the pregnancy is a result of incest or rape, or if the fetus has a particularly serious medical condition.

But abortions were still carried out "all the time," despite being illegal, Claudia said.

Unsafe abortions commonplace

Claudia hesitates for a moment before telling the story of her cousin, who accidentally became pregnant.

"We were very young. There was no question of her having a child, it wouldn't have been possible because of her parents and the financial situation," she said.

Claudia's cousin found out about a hospital where it was possible to discreetly organize an abortion.

"I thought it would be difficult. But no. A woman sent my cousin to the room next door, where she was given an anesthetic. I waited outside. It was quick," Claudia said.

The two girls were scared that something could go wrong — there was no follow-up care, only an antibiotic in case of complications.

Claudia's cousin was lucky that she lived in a city. It's a very different situation in rural areas of Benin, where the health system is poorly developed. Women there often ingest certain plants if they want to terminate a pregnancy.

Gynecologist Pascal Dennis has often had deal with the consequences of unsafe abortions at his clinic in Cotonou.

"The damage can be very great," he said. "Simple infections can be treated with antibiotics, but several organs can also be damaged and the patient can end up dying."

Saving women's lives

Health Minister Benjamin Hounkpatin estimated that unsafe abortions are responsible for 20% of maternal deaths in Benin.

"(This law) will be welcomed by the all the medical personnel who deal with complications from abortions on a daily basis," Hounkpatin said at a press conference after parliament passed the amendment.

A man sitting on a chair behind an office table
Serge Kitihoun views Benin's new abortion law as a sign of progressImage: Katrin Gänsler/DW

Serge Kitihoun is the program director of the Benin Association for the Support of the Family, which provides family-planning services across the country. He is delighted about the new law.

"We're saving our children. Our studies have shown that 200 women die every year from risky abortions. That could have been avoided," he told DW, adding that the amendment is a "success for the whole of Benin."

Catholic Church opposed

About 25% of Benin's population is Catholic, and the country's Catholic Church has been particularly vocal in its criticism of the new law.

The amendment is a "tremendous disappointment," Tiziana Borsani, a member of the Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco religious congregation, told DW. She doesn't believe that abortions "solve all problems."

"Women will continue to experience gender-based violence," she said. "They live in poverty and are economically dependent."

A woman sitting in front a laptop
Tiziana Borsani does not believe that abortion will improve women's life.Image: Katrin Gänsler/DW

The religious organization offers temporary accommodation to underage mothers so that they can keep their babies and get an education at the same time. The mothers are also given psychological support and attempts are made to reestablish contact between the teenage mothers and their families.

Little sex education

Claudia said that the real reason why women, especially teenagers, need abortions is often ignored; conversations around sex and sexual health are taboo in Benin.

"Some parents are open, but others don't even talk about it," she said, adding that, though some women can talk to their older sisters or friends about sex, the conversation is often uncomfortable.

A girl who tries to find out about contraception is stigmatized and seen as easy, Claudia said, especially if she is young.

Only about 12% of people in Benin use conventional methods of contraception, according to the World Health Organization.

As for Claudia, now she is older, she is open to the idea of contraception.

"Ten years ago, I wouldn't have dared to use it," she said.

This article was adapted from German by Abu-Bakarr Jalloh.