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Fact-checking claims on maternal deaths and abortion in Nigeria

A leading gynaecologist says Nigeria fares poorly for maternal mortality and has the world’s highest abortion rates. Is this correct?

  • Okonofua was correct that Nigeria’s most recent maternal mortality numbers were second only to India’s, not China’s as reported.

  • There is no evidence to confirm Nigeria has the highest rate of abortion in the world. 

  • Abortion is illegal in Nigeria and experts told us data around both maternal mortality and rates of abortion was likely unreliable.

Nigeria is second only to China for maternal mortality, leading gynaecologist Prof Friday Okonofua recently claimed. 

According to the Nation, a daily newspaper, Okonofua was speaking at a news conference in Benin, southern Nigeria in December 2021. He heads the World Bank-backed Centre of Excellence in Reproductive Health Innovation at the University of Benin.

The Nation said that Okonofua also “revealed that Nigeria had the highest rate of abortion in the world”. 

We took a closer look at the two claims.

Claim

Nigeria has one of the worst indicators of maternal mortality in the world, second to China.

Verdict

Mostly Correct

Maternal mortality refers to deaths due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Okonofua told Africa Check he had been misquoted but has yet to provide us with the evidence for his claims. We will update this report once we receive a reply.

He said: “Nigeria has one of the worst indicators of maternal mortality in the world, second only to India.”

Ann-Beth Moller is a technical officer at the WHO’s sexual and reproductive health department. She referred us to the organisation’s trends in maternal mortality report for 2000 to 2017.

The report showed that in 2017 Nigeria had the highest number of maternal deaths in the world, at 67,000. The estimate was based on sources such as civil registration and vital statistics systems, population-based household surveys and specialised studies.

 (Note: Experts have told us that data on maternal mortality in Nigeria remains unreliable.)

India came second to Nigeria with 23,000 maternal deaths, while China recorded 4,900. When maternal mortality rates, per 100,000 live births, were considered, Nigeria was fourth, after South Sudan, Chad and Sierra Leone.

The available data does show Nigeria ranks lowly on key maternal health indicators.

Claim

Nigeria has the highest rate of abortion in the world.

Verdict

Unproven

The headline of the Nation article also claimed that according to Okonofua Nigeria had the highest rate of abortion in the world. 

Another newspaper
reported Okonofua saying this was 45 “illegal abortions” per 1,000 women.

The professor told Africa Check he had again been misquoted. “Nigeria has one of the highest rates of unsafe abortion in the world,” he said.

Abortion is illegal in Nigeria and can result in a jail sentence of up to 14 years. It is only allowed if done to save the life of a woman.

The WHO’s Moller told Africa Check that the international health agency would soon publish country-level estimates. “But currently, I can’t confirm the statement,” she said.

Dr Oluwatosin Wuraola Akande is a public health physician and lead author of a 2020 journal article on unsafe abortions in Nigeria. She said she doubted the claim was correct.

Akande referred us to a global factsheet on unintended pregnancy and abortion which covered 2015 to 2019. It is compiled by the Guttmacher Institute, a US-based research and policy institute for sexual and reproductive health. The factsheet is based on a study of unintended pregnancy and abortion trends published in the medical journal the Lancet.

According to the factsheet, western Asia and northern Africa had the highest abortion rate, at 53 induced abortions per 1,000 pregnancies, followed by central and southern Asia with 46 abortions per 1,000 pregnancies. 

It listed a rate of 33 per 1,000 for sub-Saharan Africa. The factsheet, however, does not break down these rates per country.

In the absence of recent and publicly available reliable data, we rate the claim as unproven. (Read the challenges of estimating abortions in Africa in our factsheet here.)

Further Reading

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