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Sierra Leone News: Safe Abortion Act stranded between Parliament and State House

The “Safe Abortion Act, 2015, has stalled somewhere between Parliament and State House. The Act will change the 150-year old colonial “1861 Abortion Law” to allow women and girls to terminate a pregnancy in any circumstances up to 12 weeks. The Bill would also allow abortion in cases of incest, rape and foetal impairment up to 24 weeks.
In Sierra Leone, the country with the world’s worst maternal mortality, abortion is illegal in nearly all circumstances and unsafe abortion is estimated to account for 10% of maternal deaths. The World Health Organization estimates that Sierra Leone has the world’s highest maternal mortality ratio at 1,360 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2016.
Thousands of adolescent girls become pregnant in Sierra Leone every year and account for almost 50% of all births. In 2013, the country had the 7th highest teenage pregnancy rate in the world, 38% of women aged 20-24 had their first baby before the age of 18. Teenage mothers are estimated to be 40-60% more likely to die in childbirth. Their babies are 50% more likely to be stillborn or die shortly after birth than babies born to mothers in their 20s. According to the WHO, unsafe abortion accounts for about 13% of maternal mortality globally. The rapporteurs said Sierra Leone’s high maternal mortality rates are largely due to unsafe abortions and lack of access to lifesaving treatments.
Only an estimated 16% of women in Sierra Leone use contraception and this figure falls to 7.8% for teenagers.
Lawmakers in the Sierra Leone House of Parliament unanimously passed the “Safe Abortion Act, 2015”, on 8 December 2015. The Bill was presented by Hon. Isatu Kabia (APC), who is now the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and was meant to replace the 150-year old colonial law. The Bill seeks to allow Sierra Leonean girls and women unimpeded access to what they labeled as ‘safe’ abortion.
After MPs passed the Bill, the Act was sent to President Koroma for assent.
On 6 January 2016, the Inter-Religious Council told the President that they were not consulted in the drafting of the Act. Under considerable pressure, the President sent the Act back to Parliament. He was quoted, “Religious leaders represent a huge constituency. I will ask Parliament to put a hold on the bill pending discussions on the issue. I will not give assent now,” President Koroma assured.
The President sent the Bill back to Parliament. MPs returned the Bill to the President less than a month later without any changes.
Bishop Archibald Cole, one of the representatives of the IRCSL, said at the time, they were not sufficiently educated on the Abortion Bill because “we are dealing with the inalienable life of man to live. A Bill that would tend to take that life will have serious implications for our generational landscape,” he told the President.
Human rights groups, including 50/50, AdvocAid, CARL, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and five other Sierra Leonean organisations, wrote to President Koroma in February 2016, urging him to give the bill his assent.
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.
The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (Femnet) wrote: “We applaud the Parliament of Sierra Leone for saying definitively through the safe abortion bill that it cannot sit by while women die needlessly from unsafe abortion. Though opposed by a few loud voices, members of parliament have had the courage to stand firm in protecting the people of Sierra Leone from harm. We urge you to sign the bill into law and begin saving lives now.”
Dr. Aisha Fofana Ibrahim, former 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 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.
By law, the President cannot veto the Bill because it received a majority vote of more than two-thirds in Parliament. The Speaker of the House can give the Bill his assent, but he has refused to do so.
Tuesday July 25, 2017.

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