In a move applauded by campaigners and women’s rights groups, ministers in Sierra Leone have taken a significant step toward decriminalizing abortion and removing the nation’s colonial-era statute.
A measure on risk-free motherhood, which would increase access to abortion in a nation where terminations are only permitted when a mother’s life is in danger, was reportedly supported by the whole cabinet, according to President Julius Maada Bio.
The elements of safe motherhood and reproductive health bill have been agreed upon by cabinet ministers after years of work by government officials and a large coalition of women’s rights organizations. The bill, which is currently being prepared, is expected to be submitted to parliament by September and passed this year, according to the campaigners.
President Bio cited the US supreme court’s controversial decision to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion in 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,”
In Sierra Leone, where women face severe barriers to accessing prenatal, abortion, and contraceptive care, women’s rights organizations have pushed for years to amend the country’s colonial-era abortion law.
A century before the nation of west Africa gained independence from Britain, the existing law was enacted in 1861. Reform initiatives in the past have fallen short, including one that MPs passed in 2015 that would have permitted abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Ernest Bai Koroma, the president at the time, rejected the law in response to pressure from anti-abortion and religious organizations.
But there is a general feeling of optimism that the most recent law will be approved. The cabinet-approved elements of the measure go beyond decriminalizing abortion to address maternal health and increased access to contraceptives, post-abortion care, and other reproductive health services.
Campaigners said that the World Health Organization’s standards on abortion served as guidance throughout the process, albeit the precise circumstances under which abortion will be permitted are expected to become clear only after the draft measure is submitted to parliament. According to the WHO, safe abortions are a critical component of healthcare.