LIBERIA – Liberia’s new health law will be among most liberal in Africa for abortion — if it passes

When Teta graduated from high school in 2015, she had big plans: attend college and become a medical doctor. But when the then-17-year-old discovered she was pregnant, that bright future was cast into doubt. Her boyfriend of four years denied he had made her pregnant. Afraid of the shame and disgrace that would come with being an unwed mother, Teta sought an abortion. A friend helped her obtain a herb, commonly known as “Christmas leaf”. They boiled it into a tea that she drank. Over a few days Teta suffered indescribable pain as her body expelled the fetus. She bled and bled and thought she would die. She has not seen a doctor since the abortion, but sometimes suffers extreme pain that she treats with a pain killing medicine.

Another woman, age 30, said she drank water mixed with ground glass to abort her eight-week-old pregnancy in 2020.

One of Liberia’s largest referral health centres received 211 unsafe abortion cases in 2022. As many as one in every five required major surgery.

In Liberia abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, incest, fetal abnormality or risk to the woman’s physical or mental health. Two physicians must certify medical exceptions and evidence of rape and incest must be provided to the health minister, a county attorney or police. Illegal abortion is punishable with up to five years in prison. The law’s backers say that means safe abortion is available only to women with money to pay.

Liberia’s new public health law was passed by the House of Representatives in 2022. It is currently being debated by the Senate, where the government needs the support of two-thirds of senators for it to be passed. The bill also contains a range of other public health elements. It would make abortion legal up to 18 weeks of pregnancy if it is done by a doctor. The original version of the bill had made it 24 weeks. Abortion law reform may be dropped from the bill altogether in order to ensure the rest passes.

The Ministry of Health worked with health law experts in the US and UK to draft the law after a major survey, released in April, found unsafe abortions caused shocking outcomes for young women and the health system. More than half of all pregnancies in Liberia in 2021 were unintended – 35% (more than 38,000) ended in abortion. More than six in every ten women who had an abortion had moderate to severe complications. One in ten abortions resulted in death or “near misses”. Activists say the number is likely far higher.

Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor, defending the bill, said the law is trying to make abortion safe. The law has been welcomed by health providers and women’s rights activists. For Nawai Kaiser, founder of the Rural Women Rights Structure in Bong County, the bill is the result of more than a decade of lobbying. For her, it is personal. Her daughter died from a dangerous abortion.

SOURCES: Liberian Observer, by Tina S Mehnpaine, 4 September 2023 ; Fact Sheet: Abortion Incidence & Severity of Related Complications in Liberia 2021-22