The current laws surrounding maternal health, abortion, and contraceptive services in the West African country of Sierra Leone were adopted in 1861—a century before it won its independence from Britain. In the past, there were attempts at reforming the colonial-era legislation, including in 2015 when MPs passed an abortion law that would allow pregnancies to be terminated at up to 12 weeks, but these attempts have always failed.
However, this time, campaigners and women’s rights activists are celebrating the introduction of a new bill that is likely to go through. Sierra Leone’s president, Julius Made Bio, announced that his cabinet has unanimously backed a bill on risk-free motherhood. Should this bill pass, abortion access, which is only permitted to mothers whose lives are at risk, will expand.
A coalition of women’s rights groups and campaigners have worked up to this moment for years. The bill, which is now being drafted, is expected to be submitted to parliament by September and passed before the year is through.
When speaking at the 10th Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights, President Bio references the US supreme court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, saying: “At a time when sexual and reproductive health rights for women are either being overturned or threatened, we are proud that Sierra Leone can once again lead with progressive reforms.
“My government has unanimously approved a safe motherhood bill that will include a range of critical provisions to ensure the health and dignity of all girls and women of reproductive age in this country,”
What makes this attempt different?
Previous attempts at reform have been blocked due to pressure from religious and anti-abortion groups. But this time, campaigners are optimistic that the bill will pass because the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines on abortion—which deem safe abortions a crucial part of healthcare—have been informing the entire process.
While more young women are using modern contraceptives in Sierra Leone, the country still has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy worldwide (almost 30 percent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 giving birth) and ranks third-highest for maternal fatalities (1,120 deaths per 100,000 births in 2017) in the world.
While leaders of women’s rights groups hail this decision as “a monumental step forward,” they recognize that there is still much more work to be done.
“We know that decriminalization of abortion will not make it accessible to everyone who needs on overnight, and the stigma within our communities remains,” declares rosa Bransky and Chernor Bah, co-chief executives of Purposeful, a girls’ rights group.
“The government now must ensure that the law is fully implemented, including with new guidelines on abortion provision, training for healthcare providers, procurement of abortion medication and funding,” they add.
The precise conditions under which abortion will be legal have not yet been made public, and are not expected to be revealed until the draft bill is submitted to parliament.