Atty. Bowoulo Taylor-Kelley, Vice President,
Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia
“Decriminalise abortion to reduce deaths among women,” activists say. But is the proposed new law enough?
“Many girls and women have died on a daily basis because they cannot access safe and legal abortion. They are left with no other alternative but to use herbs and other harmful substances that lead them to die,” says Naomi Tulay-Solanke, the chairperson of the group, Amplifying Rights Network, a coalition of ten civil society organisations in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights. The Network claims growing public support for abortion legalisation in Liberia.
The abortion rights activists are calling on the government to decriminalise abortion to ensure that Liberian women have control over their own bodies and their reproductive health.
No woman, Solanke says, should die not wanting to keep a pregnancy, as it infringes upon their basic human rights to have control over their body. It has recently been revealed that a record number of more than 38,000 illegal abortions took place in Liberia in 2021. The number is likely to be higher as many cases of abortion in Liberia go unreported.
Most abortions are illegal and punishable by a jail term of up to three years in prison, in a country that is deeply religious and vocal in its condemnation of abortion. Existing law allows abortion only in cases of incest, fetal abnormality, danger to the woman’s life, or risk to her physical or mental health. Medical exemptions require written approval by at least two doctors. In cases of rape or incest, proof must be provided in court.
Abortion in Liberia, according to experts, is primarily driven by unwanted pregnancies as a result of poverty and limited access to family planning. But these experts also noted the high rate of unsafe abortions among the poor in the country, which indicates that there is one standard for the rich and another for the poor and uneducated, when it comes to the implementation of the law, even though it is hardly enforceable. The penal code says women who abort illegally can be jailed for three years. But wealthier and more educated women take advantage of “medical guidelines,” which allow a termination in the interests of a woman’s physical or mental health but require the signatures of multiple doctors.
Liberia has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with 1,072 deaths per 100,000 births in 2017, according to the UN. An article in Africa News, dated 17 June 2022, reported that Liberian lawmakers were preparing a bill to expand access to abortion, and that a joint Senate committee began debating the bill on 13 June, which would greatly expand the availability of legal abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. “We want abortion to stop being a criminal offence, we want to amend the penal code to legalise abortion,” the chair of the Senate Health Committee, Augustine Chea, who initiated the bill, told parliament in early June. After the work in committee, the text must be submitted to the vote of the two chambers of the Parliament, then, if adopted, be promulgated by the president.
In a February 2023 news report, Senator Chea, who is also a lawyer, told the Liberia Health and Rights Journalists Network that, “the legislature is… amending the Penal Code which could make abortion legal – allowing economic reasons.” Senator Chea said he supports the passage of the bill because it allows the rights of people to be respected. “We have discovered that because it is difficult to get the two doctors’ consent before an abortion is performed, a lot of women have performed illegal abortions which have subsequently led to their death, ” he said. According to him “Young girls between 15-25 years are dying every day because they cannot get doctors or the Minister of Health to approve. This is what prompted the decision for the bill to be introduced.” He said, Liberia as a member of the global community, should endeavour to create an enabling environment for the enjoyment of the rights of people, especially rights to provide safety to life.
Representative Joseph Somwarbi, Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Health, Children, and Social Protection said the issue of unsafe abortion was never captured in the 1976 public health law, but in the penal code of Liberia. “In the Penal Code, it says, before a woman carries out an abortion, she must get the consent of two medical doctors who will sign, subject to the Minister of Health approval before such abortion is performed. This is complicated and it poses a threat to the lives of many women across the country.” Hence, the decision is given to the woman or girl herself.
However, he also said that the new law being championed is not legalising abortion, but is intended to allow women experiencing life-threatening complications during pregnancy to be saved through abortion, that there are only exemptions for abnormality or deformities, and a claim of rape that must be proved. “You cannot walk to the doctor to say you don’t want a pregnancy… it is unacceptable,” he said.
The Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL) said it is in full support of the bill because women should have a say in issues that affect them. Atty. Bowoulo Taylor-Kelley, Vice President of AFELL, said the rights of women should be respected, especially with regard to their safety. But she too said the bill would remove the difficult process to allow those with grounds of incest, rape, and fetal abnormalities to exercise the rights to their bodies.
The bill has since been passed by the House of Representatives and is now before the Liberian Senate. If the Senate concurs, it will be sent to the President for signing into law.
[Editor’s Note: If anyone has further information on the actual content of the bill, please send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org because one of the three people quoted says something different from the other two.]
SOURCES: Liberian Observer, by Tina S Mehnpaine, 10 May 2023 ; Liberia Health & Rights Journalists Network, 14 February 2023 ; Africa News with AFP, 17 June 2022