By: M. Dennise Nimpson/LHRJN Fellow
In Liberia, abortion beyond the 24th week of pregnancy is considered illegal. Women who perform abortions as well as people who assist them with the procedure can face prosecution with a punishment of up to three years in prison, according to Section 16.3 of the Penal Law of Liberia.
However, the law gives an exemption for abortion to be performed in cases of rape, or if the pregnancy poses risk to the mother’s health.
Also, Section 16.1 of the Penal Code provides that for such abortion to be performed under this exemption, there must be written approval from at least two doctors.
In recent, a Public Health Bill was introduced at the Liberian Legislature with the intent to remove the two medical doctors’ consent clause in the Penal Code of Liberia, and consider abortion as a human rights that should be exercised by people themselves.
The bill has since been passed by the House of Representatives and is now before the Liberian Senate for concurrence. When the senate concurs, the bill will be sent to the President for signing into law.
For many years now since the coming into force of the law, people have been divided in Liberia regarding the law. Those in support of abortion say the law is counterproductive to human rights protection because the decision to enjoy life should not be laced in the hands of two persons, while those against abortion want the legislature not to amend the law because abortion is in conflict with the ‘will’ of God.
Key state actors and relevant stakeholders in the Liberian health sector want the legislature to remove the complication associated with conducting justified abortion to reduce the number of unsafe pregnancies and maternal deaths across the country.
Senator Augustine Chea, Chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Children Social Protection said the legislature’s intent is to amend the Penal Code to legalize abortion as being a criminal offense.
Senator Augustine Chea, Senate Health Committee Chair
Senator Chea, one of the sponsors of the abortion bill said Liberian women who do not meet the criteria imposed by the Penal Code resort to dangerous abortion practices.
Senator Chea, also a lawyer told the Liberia Health and Rights Journalists Network that, “the legislature is not making abortion a criminal offense…it 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 had subsequently led to their death, Senator Chea said.
According to him, “Young girls between 15-25 years are dying every day because they cannot get to doctors or the Minister of Health to approve. This is what prompted the decision for the bill to be introduced.”
Senator Chea said Liberia as a member of the global community should endeavor 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 over the years abortion has not been a gender issue.
“Initially the issue of abolition was never captured in the 1976 public health law, but in the penal code of Liberia,” Representative Somwarbi said.
“In the Penal Code, they said 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 threat to the lives of many women across the country, Representative Somwarbi said.”
Representative Somwarbi said, “We look at it to be something detrimental to the lives of our young girls, the complication of the process is the increased wave of illegal abortion which has contributed to the loss of lives of young women.”
Representative Joseph Somwarbi, House Health Committee Chair
In an interview with a team of Liberia Health and Rights Journalists Network, Representative Somwarbi said the previous law which calls for two doctors and the Minister of Health approval before an abortion is carried out is not unhealthy.
Representative Somwarbi: “Most of the counties are challenged with health practitioners, especially doctors, so limiting the procedure to such risk is unhealthy.”
The House of Representative Health Committee Chairman said the new law will remove the bottleneck and complications of allowing three persons to determine the life of someone.
“We felt it was not acceptable, it was not right because the rights of our women were being violated,” Representative Somwarbi said.
He explained that “We are saying if a pregnancy poses threat to the life of a pregnant woman, the available trained and recognized health practitioner should perform the abortion without waiting for two doctors to save the life of that woman.”
Representative Somwarbi noted that the new revision of the law seeks to address the shortcut people are taking to carry out an illegal abortion which is criminal under the law.
For Representative Somwarbi, clarified that the new law being championed is not legalizing abortion, rather it is intended to allow women experiencing life-threatening complications during pregnancy to be saved through abortion.
“There are only exemptions for abnormality or deformities. When these are discovered by the doctors within four months an early-stage abortion should be considered,” Representative Somwarbi said.
Representative Somwarbi emphasized that “Even in the new law we are proposing illegal abortion is prohibited. You cannot walk to the doctor to say you don’t want a pregnancy… it is unacceptable”.
He said one of the exemptions that is considered when the law is passed is that women who get pregnant as a result of unfortunate situations such rape, but such rape situation should be proven.
“If you just say someone is raped, someone who knows a teenager is having affairs can lie that the person was raped and carry out abortion against the will of that person’s will. So we are saying if someone is raped and wants to perform an abortion, this should be reported and proven,” Representative Somwarbi warned.
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.
Atty. Bowoulo Taylor-Kelley, AFELL Vice President
“So the law is saying the two doctors who need to consent before a pregnancy is aborted should be removed. I say it is good because a woman should be allowed to determine what happens to her body,” Atty. Taylor-Kelley said.
Atty. Taylor-Kelley said, “If the life of a woman is involved in a pregnancy she needs to be allowed to an perform abortion. Her life must not be infringed on because of a pregnancy that is detrimental to her survivor,” Atty. Taylor Kelley noted.
She said they do not have cases of abortion, but the bill before the legislature when passed would remove the difficult process to allow people with incest, rape, and abnormalities to exercise the rights to their bodies.
The issue of legal abortion, according to the World Health Organization, is a 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.
This fellowship story was supervised by the Liberia Health and Rights Journalists Network (LHRJN), with funding from the American Jewish World Service (AJWS).