Religious leaders thwart abortion rights in Sierra Leone
The Safe Abortion Bill
For every 100,000 live births in Sierra Leone, 1,360 women die.
According to a 2015 World Health Organization report, Sierra Leone has the worst maternal mortality rate in the world, and complications from unsafe abortion procedures contribute to 10 percent of these deaths. Thanks to a draconian abortion law, women have to procure abortion by any means they can find, and many either die from hemorrhage and sepsis or suffer severely damaging physical and psychological consequences.
Last year, the country came tantalizingly close to reversing this reality, but the effort was thwarted by last-minute interference by conservative religious groups. And the possibility of future reform may be further hindered by the Trump Administration’s global gag rule.
In December 2015, The Safe Abortion bill was passed by a two-thirds majority of the Sierra Leone House of Parliament to replace the archaic 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act. This law, imposed under British rule, criminalizes the procurement and performance of abortion, except in cases where it is necessary to preserve the physical health of the woman. The new bill provided that abortion would be legal during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and up to the 24th week of pregnancy in instances of high risk to the woman’s health, risk of fetal abnormality, and in cases of rape or incest.
Women’s rights activist Naasu Fofanah, who was the gender adviser to President Ernest Bai Koroma at the time, was part of a coalition composed of staff from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Justice, who were supported by the reproductive rights organization Ipas, that drafted the document that was formally introduced to parliament by Hon. Isata Kabia.
Fofanah remembers President Koroma’s reaction when she showed him the draft document before it was introduced. “When I showed him the draft, he was shocked. He had no idea that Sierra Leone was still operating under such a restrictive abortion law.”
In Sierra Leone’s parliamentary system, all the bill needed to be passed into law was President Koroma’s signature.
However, this never happened.
On January 6, 2016, barely a month after the bill was passed by an overwhelming vote, members of the Inter Religious Council Sierra Leone (IRCSL) met with President Koroma to petition against his signing of the bill.
Religion and Rights
One of the most vocal opponents of the Safe Abortion Bill from IRCSL was Bishop Archibald Cole, the founder and pastor in charge of New Life Ministries International, one of the largest churches in Sierra Leone. The main church attracts hundreds of worshippers at its location in the eastern part of Freetown, with satellite branches all over Sierra Leone.
“We as religious leaders work every week molding the lives of the people spiritually and morally, and whether parliament likes it or not, we are stakeholders, we govern, influence in the minds of the people by what we tell them,” Bishop Cole said. Religious leaders are indeed highly revered in Sierra Leone, and the IRCSL coalition seems to have wielded its power both socially and politically.
The council was formed in 1997 during Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war, as a platform for Muslim and Christian leaders to serve as peace brokers between warring factions. Sierra Leone has a history of peaceful religious coexistence, and Muslims, who make up 70 percent of the population, cordially exist with Christians, who make up 20 percent. When I asked him why the IRCSL intervened in the passing of the Safe Abortion Bill, Bishop Cole cited the importance of preserving “traditional values.” “The issues that the IPAS coalition and the pro-abortionists are presenting, we consider them abomination to our culture. Life is given by God. It is a sacred property. Nobody has the right to dismiss life at will.”
Naasu Fofanah senses hypocrisy in this logic, hidden under a guise of religious moralism, and this strong view is from a personal childhood experience. At the age of 15, she was raped by the reverend at her local church. After this traumatic incident, she found out she was pregnant, and with the help of her mother, she got an abortion in Kenema, in the eastern part of Sierra Leone. Fofanah survived this ordeal but still harbors anger at what she considers the willingness of spiritual leaders to turn a blind eye to other social issues prevalent in society. ‘There are so many things going on in the church, and this is what the religious leaders choose to address?”
The IRCSL’s pressure on the president to send the bill back to parliament for revisions led to a major delay, and the parliamentary session in which the bill was introduced ended before any action was taken. A new bill has to be introduced, and the process has to start all over again. A chance to protect the lives of women by providing safe abortion care was lost.
The 1861 abortion law has not stopped women from procuring abortions. Instead, it has created an underground system in which women seek abortion from anyone who is willing to assist them, whatever the cost might be.
“When some women go underground to seek abortions, they end up with botched abortions, and when taken to the hospital, doctors have no other choice than to actually finish the abortion to save their lives,” said Tania Sherriff, the country director for Ipas Sierra Leone. Ipas has also continuously highlighted evidence that unsafe abortions create a significant cost to the staggeringly weak health sector in Sierra Leone, a cost that could be greatly reduced if proper law reform such as the Safe Abortion bill was passed. According to a 2012 study done by the Ministry of Health and Ipas, the government spends approximately $231,000 to treat post-abortion complications cases, while a policy that both legalizes and creates a safe abortion option for women would decrease this to $109,000.
Dr. Williamson Taylor, who worked as a gynecologist at Princess Christian Maternity Hospital in Freetown for five years, has seen many cases of post-abortion complications. Many young women come in with vaginal wounds from inserting toxic herbs, or with internal bleeding from drinking laundry detergent or swallowing crushed glass, to get rid of their pregnancy. “Most often, these young girls get pregnant and end up by themselves, abandoned by the partners, they don’t know who to talk to, and they try whatever they think will help them” he explained.
He recounted the story of a second-year nursing student who had undergone an unsafe abortion procedure and was brought to PCMH for surgery. She died from excessive bleeding, even after he fought to save her life. “These are very preventable deaths, and it’s quite a pity that we still have women dying from unsafe abortion,” he lamented.
The Way Forward
The road to drafting another abortion bill in Sierra Leone will be a long, uncertain, and tedious one. Even if there is another vote by parliament to pass a new safe abortion bill, the pressure wielded by an influential anti-abortion camp such as IRCSL will prove to still be a bottleneck.
Bishop Cole mentioned that President Trump’s global gag rule would reduce support for pro-abortion lobbyists. Indeed, while the gag rule does not directly affect lobbyists, it significantly decreases resources for organizations that receive funding from USAID that help to support not just abortion rights, but also family planning.
Bishop Cole said he believes that the government should focus on training more gynecologists and midwives. While this is important, it does not have to be an either-or situation. There must be stronger health structures that concurrently guarantee that women will have safer deliveries as well as the option to have a safe, legal abortion.
This can only be done through gathering more evidence and continuous advocacy. There is a need for urgent law reform coupled with political will in order to protect the lives of Sierra Leonean women and empower them to make and access safe reproductive health choices.
As Tania Sheriff emphasized, “It is important to educate people with the evidence that we have and show how it is vital for women and girls’ health. If women don’t have access to some of these services, they access them illegally—the consequence is usually death.”
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