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An estimated 400 women showed up in support of the safe abortion bill wearing “children by choice, not by force” T-shirts on December 8, 2015 outside of Sierra Leone's Parliament. © 2015 Ipas

(Dakar) – Sierra Leone’s president, Ernest Bai Koroma, should sign into law a bill that would increase women’s access to safe and legal abortion, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today in a letter they and five Sierra Leonean rights groups[1] sent to President Koroma.

In December 2015, the Sierra Leonean parliament overwhelmingly passed the Safe Abortion Act 2015, which would permit access to abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, after which it would be permitted until week 24 in cases of rape, incest, or health risk to the fetus or the woman or girl. Sierra Leone’s current law, which dates from 1861, criminalizes abortion, possibly except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk.

“Even women and girls who might qualify for a legal abortion may not be able to find a health care provider who will provide one,” said Sarah Taylor, women’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “Guaranteeing women access to safe and legal abortions will go a long way toward fulfilling their right to health, and will help stop preventable deaths.”

Sierra Leone has one of the world’s worst maternal mortality rates, at 1,360 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015.

“Unsafe abortions – often resulting from restrictive laws and poor access to sexual and reproductive health services, information, and education – are one of the main factors contributing to maternal deaths,” said Dr. Aisha Fofana Ibrahim, President of 50/50, a Sierra Leonean civil society organization.

The new law would also allow girls under 18 access to an abortion with the permission of a guardian. For girls 15-19 globally, due to their age and physical immaturity, complications during pregnancy and childbirth are some of the leading causes of death. Girls often have less access to sexual and reproductive health information and contraceptives that can help them prevent unplanned pregnancies. Adolescent girls are at high risk of sexual violence, for example in the context of child marriage.

International human rights law is clear that abortion must be available to all women and girls at a minimum in cases of rape and incest, when the woman or girl’s health or life is at risk, and in cases of severe or fatal fetal impairment. Women or girls who seek abortions should not face punitive measures. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has also recommended that governments ensure that children have access to confidential medical counsel and assistance without parental consent, including for reproductive health services, when in their best interests. It has specifically called for confidential access for adolescent girls to legal abortions.

“Sierra Leone’s colonial-era abortion laws are failing the country’s women and girls,” said Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International West Africa researcher. “By signing this landmark new law, President Koroma will give Sierra Leoneans access to healthcare choices that respect women and girls’ rights and save lives.”

[1] 50/50, AdvocAid, Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, IPAS Sierra Leone, and Wi Di Uman Dem Coalition

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