The Safe Abortion Act that Sierra Leone’s parliament passed December 8 is on hold. Religious figures have raised concerns and want it reviewed, but activists say legalizing abortion in the West African country is long overdue.
The act would allow women to have an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, after which it would be permitted only in cases of rape, incest or risk to the health of fetus or mother.
Also under the act, girls under 18 could have an abortion only with the consent of a parent or guardian, and the law specifies a minimum four-year jail sentence for unqualified abortionists.
Religious leaders like the Reverend Christiana Sutton Koroma say the bill is immoral. “The mandate we have is to secure life," she said. "The mandate is to save lives and not to destroy life.”
Additionally, Koroma said she didn't think Sierra Leone has enough trained doctors to perform abortions, nor does it have the proper medical facilities.
Dr. Aisha Fofana Ibrahim, president of 50/50, a women's rights group, said that having abortion legalized would make the practice safer.
Sierra Leone has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, and that is partly due to unsafe abortions, she said.
According to a report from the country's Ministry of Health and the nongovernmental organization Ipas, one in every 1,000 women giving birth in Sierra Leone dies from pregnancy-related causes.
The World Health Organization estimates that over 6 million unsafe abortions occur annually in Africa.
Ibrahim said there is also a lot of sexual violence toward women and girls, including by their own guardians, and it needs to be addressed.
“These are the same guardians who take kids to the back door to have abortions done. At least if you have it done legally, you will save someone’s life ... ," she said. "People should look at what’s happening in the country, in terms of rape, in terms of incest, in terms of violence against women, and how this could solve a health problem in terms of high maternal mortality rates.”
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has also recently raised concern. The organization has launched a campaign to decriminalize abortion across the continent.
A former nurse in Sierra Leone, speaking on condition of anonymity for safety reasons, said she was accused of performing an unsafe abortion in which the woman died. The nurse was sent to jail for five years.
Had the Safe Abortion Act been enacted, "I would not have been in prison all that time,” she said in her native Krio dialect.
For now, it’s not clear whether President Ernest Bai Koroma will sign the bill into law. Members of parliament are set to meet with religious leaders before the end of the month to further discuss their concerns.
The current abortion act dates from 1861, a full century before Sierra Leone became independent. The old law banned abortion except when it was necessary to save the mother's life.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.