December 2015 marked an historic moment for Sierra Leone. That month, the West African country’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to legalize abortion, which was illegal even in cases of rape and incest. It was a decision hailed as setting a precedent in a region where thousands of women die every year from the complications of unsafe illegal abortions.
But the country’s president, Ernest Bai Koroma, has still not signed the decision into law. Campaigners are now worried his courage to change the status quo is faltering in the face of anti-abortion pressure groups.
“Ernest Bai Koroma was to have given the final assent to the bill as soon as it was printed. Instead, he delayed signing after approaches by members of the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone, who opposed it,” said the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion in a press release. Marge Berer, the campaign’s coordinator, today wrote to the president urging him to sign the law.
In developed countries with reliable health systems, abortion is also politically sensitive. But for women in much of Africa, it is a matter of life and death.
Outlawing abortion does not stop people having them, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Rather, it drives the practice underground, where conditions are unsafe and consequences often gruesome.
A report from the WHO attempted to measure the scale of the problem. It found that in 2008, 22 million unsafe abortions were performed around the world. Of these, 6.2 million took place in Africa, and around 30,0000 women died as a result.
The women suffering the consequences of clandestine abortions are mainly young and poor. Two-thirds of the illegal abortions in Africa surveyed by the WHO were performed on women under 25, explained Lucy Asuagbor, UN special rapporteur on the Rights of Women, in a statement last month.
Asuagbor is spearheading a campaign to decriminalize abortion across Africa, launched in January by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The ACHPR and the UN have urged Sierra Leone’s president to back the change in law.
“Sierra Leone has a great opportunity to save hundreds of women’s and adolescents’ lives by adopting the bill,” they wrote in a statement last week. Right now, they noted, Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world.