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US Religious Conservatives Lobby to Restrict Africa Abortions

FILE - A pedestrian walks past a sign pasted on a sidewalk in Johannesburg, Aug. 18, 2020.

NAIROBI — Efforts to legalize and make abortions safer in Africa were shaken when the U.S. Supreme Court ended the national right to an abortion a year ago.

African experts say the U.S. Supreme Court's reversal of abortion rights and related "reaction" events in U.S. states could reverse gains in the availability of safe abortion procedures, especially since the U.S. government is the largest global donor of international reproductive health assistance.

Such changes could deeply affect the lives of women of reproductive age in sub-Saharan Africa, where 77% of abortions, or more than 6 million a year, are estimated to be unsafe, the Guttmacher Institute, an international research and policy organization with headquarters in New York, said in 2020.

The U.N.'s World Health Organization said last year that unsafe abortions cause 16% of maternal deaths in that part of the continent, “with variations across countries depending on the level of restrictions to abortion.”

Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio has declared that his government would decriminalize abortion “at a time when sexual and reproductive health rights for women are being either overturned or threatened.”

But some U.S.-based organizations active in Africa were emboldened, especially in largely Christian countries, to counter that.

One is Family Watch International, a nonprofit Christian conservative organization whose anti-LGBTQ+ stance, anti-abortion activities, and “intense focus on Africa” led to its designation as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In April, FWI helped to develop a “family values and sovereignty” meeting at Uganda’s presidential offices, with lawmakers and other delegates from more than 20 African countries. The organization's Africa director also is advocating for his country, Ethiopia, to revoke a 2005 law that expanded abortion access and dramatically reduced maternal mortality.

“It’s kind of like the gloves are off,” Sarah Shaw, head of advocacy at U.K.-based MSI Reproductive Choices, an international provider of reproductive health services, said in an interview.

In a September speech to the African Bar Association, the president of FWI, Sharon Slater, alleged that do​nor countries were attempting a “sexual social recolonization of Africa" by smuggling in legal abortion along with sex education and LGBTQ+ rights.

“Sexual rights activists know if they can capture the hearts and minds of Africa’s children and indoctrinate and sexualize them, they will capture the future lawyers, teachers, judges, politicians, presidents, vice presidents and more, and thus they will capture the very heart of Africa,” Slater claimed.

Her speech in Malawi was attended by the country's president, a former leader of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God movement.

After lobbying lawmakers in the southern African nation not to consider a bill that would have allowed abortion under certain circumstances, the U.S.-based Catholic group Human Life International told its supporters in March that “thanks to you, Malawi is safe from legal abortion."

The African Union two decades ago recognized the right to abortion in cases of rape and incest or when the life of the mother or fetus is endangered or the mother’s mental or physical health is at risk.

A growing number of countries have relatively liberal abortion laws. Benin legalized abortion less than a year before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, though Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, allows abortion only to save the mother's life.

Abortion opponents are especially outspoken in East Africa, where countries publicly wrestle with the issue of teen pregnancy but offer little sex education and access to legal abortions in limited circumstances.

A sexual and reproductive health bill introduced in 2021 is still under debate by the East African Community, whose member nations include Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Some Catholic and other conservative organizations have criticized a section that would allow a woman to terminate a pregnancy in cases of rape, incest or endangered health.

Earlier this year, the Protestant Council of Rwanda directed all health facilities run by its member institutions to stop performing abortions, although Rwandan law permits them in certain cases.

A year ago, Kenya passed a national reproductive health policy that paid little attention to safe abortion care. In Uganda, abortion is illegal, although it can be legally carried out by a licensed medical worker who determines that a pregnancy threatens the mother’s life. But many doctors, fearing medical complications, only offer post-abortion care that may be too expensive or too late to save a woman's life.

In Ethiopia, civil society workers have asked the government to investigate what they fear is a new trend: fewer public health facilities providing abortions and more women seeking care after unsafe abortions.

Groups that oppose abortion in Africa's second most populous nation are mostly incited by outsiders and “consider the Supreme Court decision as fuel for them,” Abebe Shibru, the Ethiopia director for MSI Reproductive Choices, said.