ACCRA, GHANA, November 25, 2010 (C-FAM) – Earlier this month, a UN office partnered with abortion heavyweights to push for widespread legal abortion at a conference in Ghana, Africa.

Conference participants insisted that access to “safe and legal abortion” is central to reducing maternal mortality, and attacked organized religion and restrictive laws as being obstacles to preventing maternal deaths.

Aissatou Gaye of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) delivered the keynote address.  Gaye stressed that “restrictive policies” and laws were major contributors to unsafe abortion, since most unsafe abortions occur where abortion is illegal.

Gaye lamented the fact that many African countries still have restrictive abortion laws: “Despite the fact that the Beijing Platform for Action called on countries as long ago as 1995 to review laws that discriminate against women—which restrictive abortion laws clearly do, since men cannot get pregnant—very little change has happened in this arena.”

In addition to legal restrictions, some conference sponsors blamed religion and churches for putting a “stranglehold” on policymakers. Dr. Eunice Brookman-Amissah, Ipas vice-president for Africa, called restrictive abortion laws “archaic” and complained that attempts to liberalize laws “inherited from colonial administrations” have been circumvented by “anti-abortion churches.”

Gaye’s interpretation of the Beijing Platform for Action runs counter to conventional understanding at the UN where delegates have repeatedly stressed that the platform does not create any right to abortion and laws on abortion should be decided by states.

According to a UN factsheet, the legal status of abortion is the sovereign right of each nation and that the United Nations does not provide support for abortion or abortion related activities anywhere in the world.

UNECA’s mandate is to promote the economic and social development in and among countries in the region and to promote international cooperation for Africa’s development. While the UN is not supposed to take a position on abortion, in 2006 UN agencies including UNICEF and UNFPA came under fire for intervening in Nicaragua’s decision to ban abortion.

Gaye expressed her hope that the UN office could continue to partner with conference organizers and welcoming the results of the conference as a guide for UNECA’s work on “women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health.”

While conference organizers argued that legalizing abortion would lower maternal mortality, critics take issue with the abortion focus, pointing out that the lack of modern medicine and quality health care, not the prohibition of abortion, are the biggest contributors to high maternal mortality rates.

Entitled “Keeping Our Promise: Addressing Unsafe Abortion in Africa,” the conference was co-sponsored by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), in collaboration with the Ghana Ministry of Health, Ipas, the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Africa office, Marie Stopes International, the African Women’s Development and Communication Network, and the African Network for Medical Abortion.

At the end of the four-day conference, participants affirmed their commitment to expanding abortion access in Africa and called on governments of African nations to review laws that criminalize abortions.

Reprinted with permission from