Sierra Leone’s President, Ernest Bai Koroma has again refused to sign a bill legalizing abortion, saying it should be put to a referendum.
It was unanimously passed by Members of Parliament in December, but Koroma refused to sign it after protests by religious leaders.
After consultations, Members of Parliament returned the bill to him last month, unaltered.
The law would allow women to terminate a pregnancy in any circumstances up to 12 weeks and in cases of incest, rape and foetal impairment up to 24 weeks.
Abortion is currently illegal in Sierra Leone under any circumstances.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and five Sierra Leonean rights groups wrote to President Koroma in February urging him to give the bill his assent.
In a statement, the groups said, “Unsafe abortions, often resulting from restrictive laws and poor access to sexual and reproductive health services, information and education, is one of the main factors contributing to maternal deaths in Sierra Leone.”
The World Health Organization estimates that Sierra Leone has the world’s highest maternal mortality ratio at 1,360 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015.
President Koroma has now referred the controversial legislation to the Constitutional Review Committee, a body currently reviewing the country’s constitution.
The Committee will decide whether to include it in the changes it recommends to the constitution, which will be put to a referendum.
When President Koroma sent the legislation back to parliament in January, he asked for it to be reviewed after consultation with religious and women’s groups as it went beyond an African Union protocol on women’s right which only backs abortion in cases of sexual assault and in medical emergencies.
Under Sierra Leone’s current constitution the president cannot veto a bill which received a two-thirds majority in parliament.
The speaker of the house could sign the Safe Abortion Act into law, but he is highly unlikely to do so as he comes from the president’s party.
More medical facilities
Koroma met leaders from the Inter Religious Council of Sierra Leone (IRCSL), who all oppose abortion, in January, saying they “represent a huge constituency across the country”.
Catholic Archbishop and vice-president of IRCSL, Tamba Charles, reiterated their view at summit on the issue later in the month declaring: “No life can be destroyed on the basis of choice as life is sacred.
If they want to fight for the right of women then let them be provided with the required medical facilities that will help reduce maternal mortality rate in the country.”
The country is still recovering from a brutal 10-year civil war, which ended in 2002 and devastated much of its infrastructure.
Also recent Ebola outbreak exposed Sierra Leone’s weak health system.