In Angola, lawmakers are working on updating the country’s 130-year-old penal code, inherited from the Portuguese colonial government. This includes a proposed change that has taken many by surprise: making abortion completely illegal – with no exceptions for rape, fetus malformation, or when the mother’s life is in danger.
These exceptions, which are currently allowed, would be scrapped. The new law would also send offenders to prison for four to 10 years, rather than two to eight years under the old law.
If this law were adopted, Angola would join only six nations in the world that ban abortion in all cases: Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Malta, and the Vatican.
Angolan women’s rights activists believe that lobbying efforts by the Catholic church and other Christian groups are responsible for the proposed law, just like they were for thwarting a 2012 bill that would have expanded access to abortion services.
The proposed change has outraged women’s right activists, who organized a march in the streets of Luanda on March 18, just days before a scheduled vote in parliament on March 23. The vote was postponed, and a new date has not yet been announced. In the meantime, activists are continuing to fight against the proposed ban by organizing seminars and media appearances. They also plan to hold more marches across the country once the vote date is set.
Aurea Mouzinho, a march organizer and the co-founder of the feminist organization Ondjango Feminista, says the move to completely ban abortion came as a surprise to many activists: They were expecting the new law to give women more access to abortion, not less.
“We were surprised to find that in 2017, when the law should speak to the objective reality of the people of Angola, including women, they would attempt to pass a law that would further restrict abortion services,” she said.
She also points out that this move would go against the Maputo Protocol, an African Union-wide charter on women’s rights, to which Angola is a signatory. The protocol requires its 53 signatories to provide therapeutic abortions in the cases of rape or danger to the mother’s health.
Mouzinho says the current legislation is inadequate as it is. “It is time to start probing whether we need to go further, as these exceptions have been ineffective in protecting women from clandestine abortions,” she adds.
The World Health Organisation estimates that, worldwide, 5 million women are hospitalized each year for treatment of abortion-related complications, such as haemorrhage and sepsis. Complications due to unsafe abortion procedures account for an estimated 13 percent of maternal deaths, or 67,000 per year. Almost all abortion-related deaths occur in developing countries.
Agnes Odhiambo, a researcher with the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, argues that restrictive abortion laws lead to unsafe abortions that can result in death.
She finds the proposed ban in Angola worrying. “[It] sends a message that the government does not value women’s lives,” she says. “It will put them in a position where they risk their lives with backstreet abortions. It is also discriminatory, as it restricts access to safe abortion, a service that is only needed by women.”
Mouzinho is of the same mind-set. She does not believe that the proposed law would stop women from accessing abortion services, but rather “increase the divide between rich women and poor women.”
“Rich women will still be able to access illegal abortion services in a safe and secure environment, while poor women are dying in backyard clinics,” she said.