Benin's Parliament passed a new legal amendment to the Sexual Health and Reproduction (SRH) 2003 Law in 2021, granting women more reproductive rights.
Five years ago, only six of 54 African countries allowed an abortion at the woman's choice during the first trimester of pregnancy. This fact means a vast majority of countries either criminalised abortions or restricted abortions to where women were only allowed a procedure in circumstances that involved foetal malformation, incest, or rape. The latter was implemented in the West African country Benin until a life-changing law was passed. Benin's Parliament passed a new legal amendment to the Sexual Health and Reproduction (SRH) 2003 Law on Wednesday, 20 October 2021, granting women more reproductive rights.
Benin joins only Cape Verde, South Africa, Tunisia, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Angola in the decision to implement progressive abortion rights for female citizens. The new law states:
Upon the request of the pregnant woman, voluntary termination of pregnancy can be allowed when the pregnancy is likely to aggravate or cause a situation of material, educational, professional, or moral distress incompatible with the interest of the woman and/or the unborn child…
Abortion is now legal up to 12 weeks' gestation. With abortion rights regressing in the West, African countries mustn't follow suit but should be like Benin.
Women's reproductive rights are a sore point of discussion. Two schools of thought are in a tug of war over a decision that should fundamentally lie in the hands of those with wombs. Being pro-life or pro-choice has long divided society for decades, with the former having no regard for a woman's life or health. This thinking has created boxes in which supporters of either ideology have to reside. In contrast, abortion has many grey areas that are ignored when laws restricting medical procedures are implemented.
"Access to safe, legal abortion is a matter of human rights," states the Human Rights Watch organisation. "Authoritative interpretations of international human rights law establish that denying women, girls, and other pregnant people access to abortion is a form of discrimination and jeopardizes a range of human rights."
Where there is a human right violation, there is death or at least high risks. Benin experienced the direct adverse effects of anti-abortion laws. However, they did not eradicate the procedure. Instead, women sought alternative methods. Unfortunately, these alternative methods (or backroom abortions) were, more often than not, deadly. Statistics state that 15% of maternal deaths in Benin are due to abortions performed under unsafe conditions.
"I will say that Benin took this stance mainly to protect and save the lives of women and the long-term advocacy around this," said Ramatou Ouedraogo in an article for The Conversation. Providing legal and medically sound abortion options for women of all economic backgrounds saves lives, creates safe spaces, and incites dialogue. But unfortunately, the stigma behind abortions has been perpetuated by the restrictive laws that feed into the notion that abortions are shameful, even when they are a last-resort effort to preserve a woman's life.
Ipas: Partners for Reproductive Justice published a Q&A with Dr. Bilguissou Balde, director of Ipas Francophone Africa, outlining some of the organization's steps to help usher in a new dawn for women's reproductive rights in Benin. The organisation worked closely with the Ministry of Health "to gain a clear understanding of the abortion landscape in Benin." including conducting nationwide assessments of factors like unplanned pregnancies.
"We then worked closely with youth-led and feminist groups and individual champions," added Balde.
Benin's stance on abortion rights is a step in a better direction. The policing of bodies creates marginalisation, and reproductive oppression is regressive and violent. Unfortunately, not enough African countries have laws that work in the favour of women as is, so may Benin serve as a reminder that it is possible to change. It is possible to create safer environments for marginalised groups, but most importantly, the right to choice is human.