Religion and politics clash over Sierra Leone abortion bill
FREETOWN (Reuters) – When she was 15, long before she became gender adviser to Sierra Leone’s president, Naasu Fofanah was raped by her church pastor. With her mother’s help, she had an abortion, a decision she does not regret, even though it involved breaking the law.
“That is the choice I want other girls and women to be able to make,” Fofanah said in an interview. She stopped working for the president last year and now heads an organization combating sexual violence, angry that abortion is still illegal.
Since December, parliament, dominated by President Ernest Bai Koroma’s party, has twice passed the “Safe Abortion Bill” which would scrap the current ban, both times with more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.
Koroma has refused to sign it into law, however, saying it runs counter to the right to life enshrined in the constitution and should be put to a referendum.
His opponents say the move is aimed at currying favor with powerful religious leaders, with some, including opposition politicians, asserting he will seek to stay in power after a constitutional two-term limit runs out next year. His spokesman said the president had made clear he had no such plan.
Almost all of Africa has restrictive abortion laws, and in much of West Africa it is outlawed, often under legislation dating from European rule, although some states allow it in certain circumstances, including if a mother’s life is at risk.
Supporters of repealing Sierra Leone’s colonial-era abortion law say it is largely unenforced in practice. AdvocAid, a legal organization for women and girls, says it has handled just eight cases related to the law in the past eight years.
Instead, the consequences of illegal abortion are primarily health-related. While Fofanah said her mother was able to find a doctor for her abortion, many women have the procedure done by unqualified medics in private homes.
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