A new push to legalise early abortions in Sierra Leone
It is a familiar story. Women’s rights campaigners marshal scientific evidence and maternal health data. International declarations and regional treaties are invoked. Civil society is mobilised; a draft bill is tabled. Then comes the backlash.
In December, Sierra Leone’s parliament voted unanimously in favour of legislation that would legalise abortion at up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Championed by President Ernest Bai Koroma’s wife, Sia Nyama Koroma, and strongly supported by Mr Koroma himself, the bill’s passage into law seemed all but assured. Women’s rights campaigners hailed it as a landmark moment in the country’s history and a model for the region. But on January 6th 2016 Mr Koroma did something unexpected: he refused to give the bill his assent. Disgruntled parliamentarians were asked to review the bill’s details; public consultations were scheduled. Abortion rights campaigners were shocked: “We didn’t even think there would be objections,” says Aisha Fofana Ibrahim of 50/50, a Sierra Leonean NGO.
That was to forget the lessons of the recent past. A similar fightback happened in Kenya prior to its constitutional reform of 2010, which provided for greatly expanded abortion access, and in Ethiopia in the run-up to its relatively liberal abortion law of 2005. Soon after the passage of South Africa’s 1996 abortion law, still the most progressive on the continent, right-to-life groups brought actions against the government, claiming it violated the constitution. In 2013, the governor of the Nigerian state of Imo apologised to Christians and repealed a law that, if implemented, would have legalised abortion for nearly any reason.
Mr Koroma’s initial refusal to sign Sierra Leone’s draft bill into law fitted with an established pattern of religious protest against abortion reform in the region. Under pressure from the country’s religious authorities—days after the parliamentary vote, Christian and Muslim leaders paid the president a visit—Mr Koroma backed down. “He got cold feet,” says Marge Berer of the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion, an NGO. She and others also suspect the involvement of American evangelical groups, and even a member of the US Congress, in the local anti-abortion movement. This, too, has precedents in countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia.
Much like the debate that surrounds homosexuality in many African countries, abortion-law reform in Sierra Leone and elsewhere on the continent tends to be framed by supporters and opponents alike in terms of the continent’s colonial legacy. Although there is ample evidence that abortion was practised in pre-colonial Africa—it was generally treated as a private rather than a public matter—religious, often Catholic, critics regard it as a foreign import. Anti-abortion campaigners in Sierra Leone, many of whom participated in a protest march in Freetown, the capital, on January 27th, said in a formal submission to parliament that “the Bill represents an ideology alien to the culture of this country”. Proponents of reform, on the other hand, argue that laws prohibiting abortion in Africa are the real product of colonialism, since almost all of them date back to colonial codes. In Sierra Leone, the existing law is the 1861 Offence against the Person Act, on the statute books in many of Britain’s former African colonies.
Despite the backlash, momentum has gathered behind Sierra Leone’s draft bill. “Everybody has been talking about it,” says Ufuoma Omo-Obi of Marie Stopes Sierra Leone, an NGO. Popular support has strengthened, especially since the country’s Muslim leaders, unlike the Catholic bishops, kept comparatively silent on the matter. Crucially, the debate’s religious dimensions have been overshadowed by public-health concerns: Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality ratio in the world, on a continent where almost all abortions are unsafe, in large part due to restrictive laws.
On February 11th, Sierra Leone’s parliamentarians decided to reaffirm their backing for the bill, returning it to the president unaltered. He is expected to sign it soon.
Successful implementation would make Sierra Leone a model for much of the continent. Across Africa, there are moves to liberalise abortion law: Malawi is set to debate a bill this year; Senegal may follow suit thereafter. This comes as the African Union has stepped up its drive to encourage decriminalisation: January 2016 saw the launch of its Campaign For The Decriminalisation Of Abortion In Africa, focused on tackling stigma. On a continent where abortion is still not permitted for any reason in 12 countries, this is progress.
Restrictive abortion laws do not prevent abortion; by the same token, liberal laws do not increase its incidence. But what legal status does affect, categorically, is its safety. Sierra Leone’s lawmakers should be cheered.