Two Makerere University law dons have dragged government to the constitutional court accusing it for failing to formulate laws legalizing abortions.
The legal status of abortion in Uganda is unclear because it provides for some exceptions while criminalizing the procedure in most cases. The Ugandan Constitution, in Article 22, item 2 states: “No person has the right to terminate the life of an unborn child except as may be authorised by law.”
Prof. Ben Twinomugisha and Dr. Rose Nakayi, together with a civil society health rights advocates from the Centre for Human Rights and Development (CEHURD), have asked court to order cabinet and parliament to immediately pass a law regulating termination of pregnancies so as to reduce on marternal mortality rates that arise from unsafe abortions.
Ministry of Health statistics indicate that 343 per 100,000 women who go to give birth die in the process. 26% of these are due to unsafe abortion. According to Dr. Charles Kiggundu, a Consultant Obstetrician Gynecologist at Mulago national referral hospital, 10,000 abortions are handled every year at the hospital where women who have terminated pregnancies are assessed and treated. He said the biggest barrier to accessing abortion is access to the service itself. “Some hospitals don’t have the facilities, others the training and others the staff. Others may have all that in place but require a woman to fill in a police form before they can access the service. No woman will agree to sign it.”
The law professors contend that the existing legislation only permits abortion in exceptional circumstances such as a life of a mother at risks but does not protect young girls and married women who may get unwanted pregnacies hence resorting to unsafe arbortion methods.
The two scholars argue that in other African countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Ghana and Tunisia, which are similar in social and economic circumstances as Uganda, deliberately developed laws to protect the rights of women by prescribing circumstances under which a woman is allowed to terminate her pregnancy.
They add that they see no reason as to why Uganda should not borrow a leaf from its neighbours and take an essential step to protect the lives of women who continue dying day by day due to unsafe arbortions.
In 2006 new guidelines were put in place by Uganda’s ministry of health, which theoretically extended legal abortion to cases such as incest or rape, or if the mother suffers from HIV or cervical cancer.
Yet, it is unclear as to whether or not these policies overrule or coincide with the constitution. Joy Asasira, programme manager at the Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development, says the fact that the policy framework and legal framework are removed from each other provides a huge challenge for those trying to interpret what is or is not legal.
Prof. Anthony Mbonye, Ag. Director General of Health Services at the Ministry of Health said to tackle unnecessary deaths arising out of terminating pregnancies, he had proposed to introduce Manual Vacuum Aspiration (MVA) a safe medical procedure where a woman can end a pregnancy up to 12 weeks into it while still in the reproductive health department but this never came to pass. He recommends that women who get pregnant as a result of rape, violence or incest should be allowed to terminate it.
Without a law on abortion in place however, Mbonye said focus should be put on prevention now that women can access free contraceptives at government hospitals and cheaply in private facilities. Currently access stands at 30%. Still about 850,000 women get unwanted pregnancies every year.
However, recently while in Kapchorwa, the Papal Nuncio condemned the acts of abortion calling the evil. “Some human rights activists are agents of the devil”, the Papal Nuncio to Uganda, Archbishop Michael August Blume said.
“They tell you about condom use, infidelity, homosexuality and adultery. They talk about injectaplan and insist on abortion; they promote sale of children. None of these are human rights but works of the devil,” he said.
Clarifying the matter, the papal envoy said there are pertinent issues that are purely evil but are being promoted by some NGOs and civil society activists under the guise of upholding human rights.
Such evils, the Archbishop said, are tearing families apart.