Namibia’s Complex Stand: Deciphering the Human Rights Debate Surrounding Abortion

Abortion is a contentious global issue. Namibia gained independence in 1990 but continues to follow the 1975 Abortion and Sterilization Act inherited from South Africa, which imposes strict abortion restrictions. Some lawmakers are pushing to legalize abortion for any reason due to concerns about unsafe, illegal abortions harming Namibian women. However, pro-life advocates oppose this move.

Current abortion Law in Namibia

According to the Legal Assistance Center, the relevant Namibian law is the Abortion and Sterilization Act 2 of 1975 inherited from South Africa at independence. This law allows abortion only in these following circumstances:

  1. Where continuing the pregnancy will endanger the woman’s life or constitute a serious threat to her physical or mental health
  2. There is a serious risk that the child will suffer from a physical or mental defect that will result in an irreparable and serious handicap
  3. The pregnancy resulted from rape, incest or unlawful carnal intercourse with a woman who has a severe mental incapacity.

Furthermore, two doctors must provide a certificate to confirm the reasons for the abortion. If the reason is unlawful intercourse (rape or incest), a magistrate’s certificate is also required. Abortion is considered illegal in any other situation, and both the woman seeking it and the person performing it may face a fine of up to N$5,000, imprisonment for up to five years, or both.

The Criminalization of Abortion

The criminalization of abortion has driven many Namibian women to unsafe abortions. The contribution of unsafe abortion to maternal deaths is not known, but the little data that is available suggests that it may account for 12 to 16% of Namibia’s annual maternal deaths.

Failing to change abortion laws can result in women resorting to risky, secret procedures. According to Dr. Bernard Haufiku, Namibia’s former health minister, told CNN that illegal abortions are often done in hidden locations by unqualified individuals, posing serious risks to women. Dr. Haufiku, a medical doctor, stated that some women have lost their lives attempting these dangerous procedures.

In 2021, Dr. David Emvula, another medical professional, informed a parliamentary hearing that 14 Namibian women had died from unsafe abortions between April 2018 and March 2022. He estimated that approximately 7,000 unsafe abortions took place in 2017.

The Legal Assistance Center also explains counting abortions can be challenging since it’s often kept secret due to legal concerns. Women with means tend to go to South Africa for legal abortion (available on request for up to 12 weeks of pregnancy since 1996), while « baby dumping » happens when people can’t access abortion. And this is another issue in Namibia. In South Africa, any woman under 13 weeks pregnant can get an abortion without needing to provide a reason.

Where is Namibia now with abortion?

Namibia’s pre-independence abortion law remains in effect to this day, despite ongoing debates on the subject within educational institutions, as well as the submission of petitions and the organization of protests. Despite these efforts, there has been no significant change in the legal framework surrounding abortion. The resistance to altering the law is, in part, linked to the influence of religious groups in the country.

Namibia, predominantly a Christian nation, does not have a secular governance system, and as a result, religious parties have played a significant role in preserving the existing abortion legislation. Their stance is generally against the liberalization of abortion laws, as it contradicts their religious beliefs and values.

These religious parties and organizations often assert that the sanctity of life begins at conception and should be protected by law. This perspective has made it challenging to advance any significant reforms in the realm of abortion policy, as it continues to be a deeply polarizing issue within the country.


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