REUTERS By: Paul Carsten, Reade Levinson, David Lewis, and Libby George
REUTERS/Paul Carsten & Christopher Van Der Perre
Since at least 2013, the Nigerian Army has run a secret, systematic and illegal abortion program in the country’s northeast, terminating at least 10,000 pregnancies among women and girls, many of whom had been kidnapped and raped by Islamist militants, according to dozens of witness accounts and documentation reviewed by Reuters.
The abortions mostly were carried out without the person’s consent – and often without their prior knowledge, according to the witness accounts. The women and girls ranged from a few weeks to eight months pregnant, and some were as young as 12 years old, interviews and records showed.
This investigation is based on interviews with 33 women and girls who say they underwent abortions while in the custody of the Nigerian Army. Just one said she freely gave consent. Reporters also interviewed five civilian healthcare workers and nine security personnel involved in the program, including soldiers and other government employees such as armed guards engaged in escorting pregnant women to abortion sites. In addition, Reuters reviewed copies of military documents and civilian hospital records describing or tallying thousands of abortion procedures.
The existence of the army-run abortion program hasn’t been previously reported. The campaign relied on deception and physical force against women who were kept in military custody for days or weeks. Three soldiers and a guard said they commonly assured women, who often were debilitated from captivity in the bush, that the pills and injections given to them were to restore their health and fight diseases such as malaria. In some instances, women who resisted were beaten, caned, held at gunpoint or drugged into compliance. Others were tied or pinned down, as abortion drugs were inserted inside them, said a guard and a health worker.
Women and girls are trapped in a titanic struggle in northeast Nigeria between the federal government and Islamist extremists – a war that has raged for 13 years. At least 300,000 people have died since the conflict began, some due to violence, many more from starvation and disease, according to the United Nations and human rights groups. The northeast, a region of semi-arid savannahs, thick forest and floodplains, once was known as the breadbasket of the nation. But in the course of the war it has collapsed into economic devastation and widespread hunger, creating massive displacement and what the U.N. has called one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Central to the abortion program is a notion widely held within the military and among some civilians in the northeast: that the children of insurgents are predestined, by the blood in their veins, to one day take up arms against the Nigerian government and society. Four soldiers and one guard said they were told by superiors that the program was needed to destroy insurgent fighters before they could be born.
“It’s just like sanitizing the society,” said a civilian health worker, one of seven people who acknowledged performing abortions under army orders.
Soldiers said orders came from direct superiors on how to run and tally abortion transports, how to keep the program under wraps and where to bury any casualties. Health workers at civilian hospitals said their orders to perform abortions came from army officers.
Forced abortions may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to four legal experts briefed by Reuters on its findings. Although forced abortions are not specifically criminalized under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the experts said, they could be construed as torture or other inhumane treatment and be prosecuted as such.
[Genocide Watch comment: In fact, forced abortions are criminalized under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which incorporates the Genocide Convention. When intended to destroy an ethnic or religious group in whole or in part, forced abortions are acts of genocide under Article 2 (d) of the Genocide Convention: "Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group."]
Most of the women Reuters interviewed said they were given no explanation for the injections and pills they received. Others, like Fati, said medics and soldiers passed off injections and pills as cures for weakness or disease.
In reality, the medications were intended to terminate their pregnancies, according to documentation from hospitals and military facilities.
Nigerian facilities often used misoprostol, which helps induce labor or contractions, according to the documentation reviewed by Reuters. The drug is also used to treat ulcers and post-partum hemorrhaging, and is widely available in Nigerian cities, including through unofficial abortion-drug distribution networks. Women sometimes were also given the progesterone-blocker called mifepristone, which in many countries is used in conjunction with misoprostol in medication abortions.
Also given was the drug oxytocin, which is widely used during labor to stimulate contractions and safe to use when under medical supervision. Though experts say it is not recommended for abortions, it was sometimes given at military bases to trigger terminations, said two soldiers who performed the procedures.
Using oxytocin to induce abortion is dangerous, several international medical experts told Reuters, particularly if it is injected intramuscularly, as soldiers involved in the Nigerian program said it was. If the drug is administered too quickly, the results can be fatal, the experts said.
The medications misoprostol and mifepristone are considered safe for abortions when the standard medical protocol is used, according to the World Health Organization and other authorities.
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