Women’s group challenges religious leaders
February 2, 2016 By Jariatu S. Bangura
A coalition of women’s groups in Sierra Leone have challenged religious leaders over the contentious ‘Safe Abortion Bill’, which parliament passed into law last year but failed to get the presidential assent to become law.
The women turned out in their numbers yesterday to present their position paper to parliament after State House urged “consultations” on the bill.
“We are proud of our religious identity as Sierra Leoneans and our piety and tolerance, but we remain a secular state where our laws and policies are guided by science and the best interest of all – including those who do not believe,” said a statement by the women as they presented a counter position paper after the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone made a similar presentation last week, denouncing the bill. “This Act [the Safe Abortion Bill] is sound public policy that will save lives, reduce cost, respect our heritage and advance women’s right. Our various religious texts contain multiple forbidding – fornication, adultery, drinking, lying, not eating pork or certain meat, what to touch or wear etc.”
The Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone, after succeeding to persuade President Ernest Bai Koroma not to assent his signature to the Safe Abortion Bill, last week presented their position condemning the bill as one that “undermines religious and cultural values”.
But a position paper presented yesterday by a coalition of women’s groups, including the 50/50 group, Marie Stopes, Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL), Ipas and Society for Democratic Initiative (SDI), noted that “if religion dictates our public policy, that would be a slippery slope to a religious caliphate that our country is not? This is not a theocracy; it is a democracy. We respect those edicts and continue to aspire to live up to them. But we surely do not base our public policy and laws solely on them because all of us would be criminals.”
They further posited that: “Many religious organisations and people of faith support women’s reproductive choice that the Safe Abortion Act promotes. Although many religious groups oppose abortion, many other people of faith – including those in the coalition – support the Act because of the many good reasons outlined above. A global study found that while the Catholic and Lutheran churches oppose abortion, more of their members believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases versus illegal in all or most cases (51% vs 45% Lutheran; 48% vs 45% Catholic). We respect our religious positions on abortion but simply refuse to impose it on everyone else as a matter of public policy.”
They continued that the most fundamental right of a woman is the right to her body, and that punishing her from exercising a fundamental right to her body is simply unjust and violates the principles of key international conventions that Sierra Leone is a party to.
“The Maputo protocols recently signed by our parliament affirm a woman’s right to choose and this Act is firmly rooted in those principles,” they emphasised. “The African Union Human and People’s Right Commission recently urged all African countries to legalise abortion and called especially on Sierra Leone to pass this law. Women are moral agents and capable of making decisions about their lives and whether or not to have children. Our country should not have laws that punish them for exercising that basic right.”
The pro-safe abortion coalition further argued that every year some 68,000 women die because of unsafe abortions, thus insisting that it should be decriminalised in order to help save lives of women and girls who go to quacks to abort unwanted pregnancies.
“WHO estimates that up to a third of maternal mortality is primarily because of unsafe abortion. In fact, a significant portion of maternal mortality in our country is one of the highest in the world. This is attributable to unsafe abortion. Hundreds die in our country – our sisters, aunts, moms, friends,” they said.
“The Act does not promote abortion. It will simply save lives of many of our women and girls who will try one way or another to have an abortion every year. Instead of going to quacks, the Act will give them the opportunity – after counseling – to choose legal and safe abortions in designated, regulated centers that will unquestionably save many lives. Just six years after South Africa reformed its laws to make abortion safe and legal, deaths from unsafe abortions reduced by 50%.”
It is now left with lawmakers to decide what next to do after holding “consultations” with both sides in the abortion debate, as they are by law required to vote on the bill again, with a two-thirds majority votes required for it to automatically become law without the president giving his assent.