Getting reproductive health counselling in KampalaKAMPALA, UGANDA — Uganda, like most of Africa, has been a target of population controllers for many years. Boxes of condoms are stacked in chiefs' offices for use in government dispensaries. Marie Stopes clinics offering vasectomies and abortions dot every sizeable township. But as the response has been disappointing, the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) are trying another tack.
How? By means of the Maputo Protocol, adopted by the African Union (AU) in July 2003. Even well-informed Africans have never heard of this document, yet, if the Maputo Plan of Actionis approved at an AU assembly on January 29 and 30, it will have far-reaching consequences for the whole continent. The world's foremost opponent of abortion, the Vatican, is concerned. Pope Benedict XVI recently slammed the Maputo plan of action as "an attempt to trivialise abortion surreptitiously."
The Maputo Plan of Action for the Operationalisation [sic] of the Continental Policy Framework for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights 2007-2010 was launched at a session of African Ministers of Health in Addis Ababa in September. Representatives of the AU, UN agencies, international agencies and NGOs participated. Although the budgets for such programs are notoriously rubbery, the Plan of Action calls for US$16 billion to be spent from 2007 to 2010 on family planning, safe motherhood, newborn health and sexually transmitted diseases.
Discussion about the Protocol has been dominated by the UNFPA and the IPPF, who dusted off well-worn arguments about over-population as the root of poverty. This slogan has succeeded in deceiving generations of people. Exactly the contrary is the truth. Africa is empty.
On a night flight from Nairobi to Khartoum or from Nairobi to Kinshasa over thousands of kilometres one sees no lights on the ground. Africa is poor because it is empty. The over-population is to be found in the huge urban slums, where poverty is caused by mistaken economic policies, weak institutions and the greed of government officials. Even the African health ministers believe — or are induced to believe — that their own countries are over-populated.
Experts have also dangled the carrot of financial gains from implementing population control programs: "meeting the need for family planning would avert 22 million unsafe abortions thereby preventing 53,000 unsafe abortion deaths which during 2001 – 2021 would lead to savings of $22 billion/10 years from maternal death and another $23 billion /10 years from maternal disability".
The two international population bodies managed to insert in the final document a mention of "unsafe abortion", together with the approval of family planning and services of sexual and reproductive health, with the intention of affirming the right to abortion and of making abortive practices more easily available as a means of pursuing the Millennium Development Goals.
Their aim is also to apply at the national level the Program of Action of the 1994 Cairo conference on population. Even countries traditionally close to the position of the Vatican, such as Uganda and Kenya, declared themselves in favour of the document.
What binding power does the Maputo Protocol have? It is a text of international law of the African Union, the highest forum on the African continent. No text of international law has gone this far. If the heads of state approve it at the end of this month, it will then be presented to the national parliaments for ratification. Paradoxically, Africa, where, apart from instances of senseless blood-letting, life is still held in high esteem, will earn the dubious honour of being the first continent to define abortion as a right.
Uganda's Catholic bishops see the Maputo Protocol as a Western attack on traditional African values. They issued a stinging statement in which they said: "We Africans consider and appreciate human life as the first gift of God to humanity… We strongly believe that God continues His alliance with humanity whenever, with the parents, He knits the new baby in the mother's womb. This set of convictions that are so immediate, easy and natural for us, seem to have become weaker in other cultures of the world."
Apart from its provision for abortion, the Maputo Protocol is a commendable document that goes far towards improving the lot of African women and girls. It condemns female genital mutilation, all forms of violence against and exploitation of women, under-age forced marriages, etc.
But, as usual, the devil is in the details. The article dealing with sexual and reproductive health rights is objectionable, both for its content and its ambiguity. These rights always turn out to be a cover for the legalisation of abortion.
A further danger is that the majority of the African heads of state, deceived by the clever language of the document, perhaps worried too for the health of their peoples, and attracted by the enormous sums of money, may sign away centuries of tradition and the convictions of their citizens.
What about the right of conscientious objection for health workers and the hospitals and clinics, many of which — in some countries, the large majority — are established by religious institutions, and operate according to their ideals? Will health workers be forced to act contrary to their beliefs or be penalised for not doing so?
The hope is that sanity and sound sense will prevail, and either the heads of state will refuse to sign the protocol in its present form or national parliaments will ratify it only on the condition that abortion is not included.
Martyn Drakard is MercatorNet's contributing editor for Africa. He lives in Kampala.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.