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Safe Abortion Legislation in Sierra Leone: Women’s Rights, Not Men’s Faith!

February 17, 2016 By Aruna Kallon

It would be recalled that the Sierra Leone Parliament on Tuesday 8th December, 2015 adopted The Safe Abortion Act 2015, which would allow women to carry out abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and until 24 weeks where such pregnancy is the result of rape or an incestuous relationship, or where it poses a health risk to the mother or foetus. This was a laudable and progressive move by our lawmakers, demonstrating their willingness to provide leadership on the advancement of women’s rights.

Pro-choice campaigners and women’s rights organisations, both locally and internationally, were quick to hail the decision for what would clearly be a massive stride in the country’s efforts at promoting women’s rights and fulfilling its obligations under international law. Women and gender rights activists were however warned not to uncork the champagne just yet, as President Ernest Koroma withheld his assent which would bring the law into force. It was reported that President Koroma refused to sign the Bill into law, preferring instead to recommend more consultations between lawmakers and the Inter-Religious Council. All of this happened after a group of religious leaders, who vehemently oppose the bill on “moral, religious and economic grounds”, remonstrated with the President.

Sierra Leone has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates, estimated at 1,360 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015, according to Human Rights Watch (February, 2016). One-third of maternal deaths in the country result from complications from unsafe abortions, a preventable cause. Unsafe abortion practices are common in the country because of the antiquated 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA), inherited from England, which criminalizes abortion and punishes it with up to life imprisonment, excepting where it was necessary to save the life of the mother. Not only is this law out-dated considering the ever evolving human rights landscape and the fluidity of the social phenomena that shape it, the 1861 Act also infringes on women’s right to control and make decisions regarding their fertility, method of contraception, and indeed their reproductive health generally. When we consider the human being we should think of the entire being, which includes not only the physical or mental aspects, but also, and equally importantly, the psychological and emotional aspects.

A woman is not merely a bundle of organs, tissues or cells. And when we talk about a pregnancy, we should consider it much more than as a biological or physiological process. Even where a pregnancy does not pose a threat to a woman’s physical or mental health, consideration must certainly be given to whether it affects the woman’s emotional and psychological wellbeing. In other words, a woman should be allowed to make a decision on whether to keep or abort a pregnancy which is the result of an incestuous relationship or rape, or which has the potential to cause grave economic consequences. These are significant omissions in the outdated OAPA which the Safe Abortion Act 2015 seeks to correct, inter alia.

The law, if enacted, is not intended to give free rein to women or girls to abort their unborn babies. That unsafe abortion has always gone on unabated with or without a law prohibiting or permitting it is a no-brainer. The new law only ensures that women in need of an abortion will have access to safer health environments, and the practice will be a lot more professionally and responsibly done. This is what Section 5 (4) of the Act seeks to address by asserting that: “Any practitioner whose action results in injury or loss of life or both commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not less than ten million Leones or not exceeding fifty million Leones or to a term of imprisonment not less than four years or to both the fine and imprisonment.”

In addition, the Government of Sierra Leone spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on treating post-abortion complications. Unwanted pregnancies were identified in a 2011 study conducted  by Ipas and the Ministry of Health and Sanitation to examine the impact of unsafe abortion on the country, as contributing immensely “…to thousands of maternal deaths and injuries, infertility, poverty and orphaned children.” In that same study, Ipas reported that “the Sierra Leonean Government spent between US$112,000 (Le481, 600,000) and US$230,000 (Le989, 000,000) annually in personnel and medical supplies to treat post-abortion cases.” If the enactment of this Act can help Sierra Leone save so much money, as experts say; and while we have waited for too long for the bill to be enacted in the first place, it only makes a bad matter worse for Government to continue to drag its feet on it.

Sierra Leone has acceded to many international human rights agreements, compliance with which requires the country to domesticate these treaties in its national legislation. For instance, Sierra Leone has ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, otherwise known as the Maputo Protocol. Article 14 of this Protocol deals with health and reproductive rights of women. It states that: “States Parties shall ensure that the right to health of women, including sexual and reproductive health, is respected and promoted”, including “the right to control their fertility; the right to decide whether to have children, the number of children and the spacing of children; and the right to choose any method of contraception.” A Safe Abortion Act at this time will be a high point in the country’s human rights performance, as it will signal its compliance with the Maputo Protocol. It will also beautifully coincide with – even be a pace-setting response to – the call to action by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) for the decriminalization of abortion in Africa.

On January 18, 2016, during the African Union’s Gender is My Agenda Campaign (GIMAC) meeting held at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights launched a campaign for the decriminalization of abortion in Africa. This campaign is meant to  ensure that African states take practical measures to stem unsafe abortion which poses a significant threat to women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health, and which,  according to the World Health Organization (WHO), continues to be a major cause of maternal deaths and injuries in Africa. While Sierra Leone is the last of the 16 countries in West Africa to ratify the Maputo Protocol, it cannot afford to miss the glorious opportunity to be ranked among the first set of countries (including Mozambique, Tunisia, Cape Verde and South Africa) to liberalize abortion, a domestication of the Maputo Protocol. In an article titled “Sierra Leone’s Abortion Act Proves Africa’s Need to Liberalize Abortion” (December 14, 2015), Cynthia Okoroafor describes Sierra Leone’s Safe Abortion Act as an “achievement” which puts the country “…at the forefront of progressive abortion law reforms in Africa.”

I am not surprised that religious and moral assumptions pervade the public discourse on the proposed law. I am however underwhelmed by the sanctimony of the religious society over the enactment of a safe abortion law. This sort of approach to right-based legislation has the potential to fluster the efflorescence of our nascent democracy and the country’s strides to comply with international law. I cannot understand why the interfaith council has been so silent on other issues in our laws which, like abortion, equally pose questions of morality. The campaign for the Death Penalty to be expunged from our laws has been going on for God knows how long and it doesn’t seem to attract the attention of those taking the moral high ground, even though the death penalty clearly defies the “Thou shall not kill” doctrine that many theologians are now positing to berate the Safe Abortion Bill. Not to mention that if the death penalty remains in force, Sierra Leone will continue to fail in its obligation to comply with Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which states that, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

A member of the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone recently noted that religious leaders were the “moral guarantors” of this nation. I have tremendous respect for the role of religion in national development, especially in Sierra Leone, and I am not oblivious of the inestimable role played by religious actors, in particular, the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone, in the war years to foster peace and to reconcile aggrieved parties after the war. However, while it is a valid point to make that most laws have a basis in morality, I believe that faith is better suited to guiding private life than determining public policy. Thus, I do not believe that the enactment of a safe abortion law should be determined by its concomitance with the scripture.

Also, it is my considered opinion that it will be wiser and more equitable for the views of female clusters such as the 50-50 Women’s Group to be given ascendancy over those of theologians in this matter. Considering that the Inter-Religious Council for instance is incontrovertibly a male dominated entity, it will be unfair – even undemocratic – not to consider with predilection the concerns of women on a matter bordering almost entirely on their health and wellbeing. After all, the proposed law is so liberal that it clearly leaves a window for healthcare providers to act according to their conscience, while it states at Section 5 (1) that: “…no healthcare provider shall be under any legal duty to directly participate in abortion services if the healthcare provider has a conscientious objection to provide abortion services.” You see; the law is as much a matter of choice as it is of right.

Above all, there are very tangible socio-economic concerns which should be considered over and above brassboundreligious dogmas. The rates of teenage pregnancy and child marriage are high in the country; there is a low rate of contraceptive use, causing high fertility rates; financial and social support are painfully limited for many women; and, perhaps most importantly, medical care is a tall order for many women and adolescents, especially in rural areas. In addition to these, many young girls are likely to suffer complications and face the risk of death during pregnancy and childbirth, because their bodies are normally not developed enough to carry a baby and deliver safely. It is a crucial point for assailants of the Safe Abortion Bill to note that restrictive abortion laws such as found in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 do not reduce or eradicate abortion, rather they force women into clandestine practices in which many run the risk of losing, and many more have indeed lost, their lives at the hands of quacks. Liberalizing our abortion laws gives the opportunity to lessen the spate of unsafe abortions which are responsible for about 20% of all maternal deaths in the country. We can certainly make a case that the Government of Sierra Leone needs not only to legalize abortion, but also to be committed to providing and sustaining the necessary structures for safe, affordable and accessible abortion services; but the law certainly needs to be in force before that becomes a relevant appeal. We cannot continue to sacrifice the reproductive health rights, and indeed the lives of women on the altar of religion and culture.

The inability of women to make decisions over their health and reproductive rights based on social, economic and cultural assumptions does not bode well for our strides to reduce the economic and social equality gaps which continue to form dark patches in our democracy. I therefore crave His Excellency the President’s indulgence to finish up the laudable work of Parliament by signing the Safe Abortion Bill and passing it into law, and pray that Government moves quickly towards providing safe, affordable and accessible abortion services once the law takes effect. I also call on opponents of the bill to shed all fetters of culture and sanctimony, get out of bed with bigotry, and realise that more than ever before, Sierra Leone needs to confront and defeat the demons of its past.

Aruna Kallon is Editor/Communication Consultant – Center for Accountability  and Rule of Law (CARL) and a Part-time Lecturer in the Department of Language Studies, Fourah Bay College –  University of Sierra Leone.