Liberia: Senate Debates Abortion Rights Legalization

 Capitol Building, the Seat of the National Legislature including the Senate.  

A Joint Committee of the Senate has begun debating a bill that would maintain the country’s law that restricts abortion or make it legal in most cases.

Currently, many women who have an abortion in Liberia, as well as people who assist them with the procedure, can face prosecution.  Exemptions are only considered in cases of rape or if the pregnancy poses a risk to the mother’s health.   

But that is possible if at least two medical physicians offer written reasons, and in cases of rape or incest, police and judicial investigations are necessary.

The bill, which Senate joint Committees on Health, Gender, Social and Children Protection, as well as Judiciary debating in secret session, would determine whether Section 16.3 of the country’s penal code, which criminalizes abortion, should stay the same or expand the scope under which the procedure is allowed.  Under Section 16.3, abortion is legal if it occurs only after a licensed physician determines there is a substantial risk that continuing the pregnancy would gravely impair the mother’s physical and/or mental health. 

If the latter is voted on, passing through the necessary steps to become law, Liberia would join a handful of African countries to become a leader in reproductive rights in the sub-region.

According to Senator Augustine Chea of Sinoe County, the Senate Committee on Health is taking the lead in debating the bill with assistance from Judiciary Committee, and thereafter a decision would be made along with a report filed to the plenary for action.

Sen. Chea, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, had revealed that their discussion is focusing on not making abortion a “criminal offense”, amending the penal code which could make abortion legal – allowing economic reasons. The Senator, while serving as a proxy for Senate Pro Tempore Albert Chie at the induction of officials of the Women’s Legislative Caucus, said that the bill would seek to legalize abortion in the country.

Sen. Chea, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, made the remarks in the presence of Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor, Senators Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence and Botoe Kanneh, and numerous other women from the public and private sectors. The Women Legislative Caucus, which Senator Karnga-Lawrence of Grand Bassa County now leads, was inducted on June 9.

But Senator Conmany Wesseh of River Gee County, who is a member of the Committee has clarified that the bill “is still under discussion,” and a conclusion has not been made. He added they are still debating the merits and demerits of the bill, contrary to Sen. Chea’s disclosure that the Senate’s Committee on Health is learning toward making abortion a “criminal offense." 

The River Gee Senator believes that his colleagues should not have mentioned the bill since it is being debated in the committee room.

The issue of legal abortion, according to the World Health Organization, is human rights and banning does not reduce the number of abortions – rather it makes it less safe. According to a 2013 study by the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), 32 percent of more than 3,000 surveyed Liberian women aged between 15 and 49 said they have had an abortion.  The CHAI study is just one of the two volumes of research undertaken about abortion in Liberia.

The second was conducted by the Ministry of Health, more than seven years ago, when it interviewed 326 women from Bomi, Grand Bassa, Lofa, Montserrado, and Nimba counties and found that more than 30% of women with unwanted pregnancies have undergone illegal abortions.

And from 2015-2019, there were a total of 242,000 pregnancies annually: Of these, 119,000 pregnancies were unintended and 47,600 ended in abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a leading research, and policy organization based in the US that is committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) worldwide.

Citing these studies, advocates of abortion legalization have argued that if Liberia's restrictive abortion law is not changed, many more women will undergo unsafe procedures that put their well-being at risk.

They added that when abortion is restricted, women often resort to clandestine procedures, which are often unsafe — performed by individuals lacking the necessary skills or in an environment lacking the minimal medical standards, or both.

Almost all abortion-related deaths worldwide, according to Guttmacher Institute, occur in developing countries, with the highest number occurring in Africa.  In the poorest countries, women have the fewest resources to pay for safe procedures. They are also the most likely to experience complications related to unsafe abortions.

However, critics argued that the country complying with the Maputo Protocol, the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, is a clear indication that the country’s priority is abortion rights while promoting the right of the unborn child.

Maputo Protocol in A14 (1b) states that women should have “the right to decide whether to have children, the number of children and the spacing of children” and in A14 (1c) “the right to choose any method of contraception.” 

However, in A14(2c) it says that State Parties should take all appropriate measures to “protect the reproductive rights of women by authorizing medical abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the fetus.”

Critics believe that while it is a person's right to decide what happens to their own body, the life of an unborn child matter and that outweighs the other.

Meanwhile, the Daily Observer has gathered that some members of the joint Committee are proposing that abortion should be made legal with certain conditions, not limited to when the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act or when the woman’s life or health is at risk.

The Senators, who spoke on condition of anonymity, disclosed that it is time for “equality to exist in reality” — allowing women the right to choose whether or not she wants to have the baby since it is her body.

“Don’t you think it’s finally time for a change? Yes.  Having an illegal abortion may cause more deaths because it is done in backyard clinics and sometimes we throw our babies in dumpsites because most women can't even afford a daily meal or provide a good home for the children,” the Senators said.