Friday, February 6, 2009

The Abortion Dilemma—where would Sierra Leone go?

CONFUSED, frightened, tearful, a 15-year-old girl watches her boyfriend walk away in disgust. He called her stupid for getting pregnant. She thought they were in love.
A woman is filled with despair when she realizes that she is expecting her sixth child. Her husband is out of work, and the little ones go to bed hungry every night. How can they possibly care for another child?
“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” explains a smartly dressed woman to her doctor. She has finally earned her Accounting degree and is about to begin her new career. Her husband is completely absorbed in his law practice. Where would they find time for a baby?
These people live worlds apart and face different dilemmas, but they choose the same solution: abortion.
The Debate
Abortion is one of the most explosive issues of the decade, igniting raging debates in political, social, medical, and theological fields. Around the world, pro-lifers march for the rights of the unborn. The pro-choice camp stands on the grounds of freedom and a woman’s right to decide. Crusaders battle freedom fighters in elections, in courtrooms, even in the streets.
Millions are caught in a tug-of-war, torn by the impassioned arguments of each side. The very terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” were carefully chosen to woo the undecided. In this age where freedom is idolized, who wouldn’t favor choice? But then again, who wouldn’t be for life?
This whole death-dealing tragedy is aptly described in Laurence H. Tribe’s book Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes. “Many who can readily envision the concrete humanity of a fetus, who hold its picture high and weep, barely see the woman who carries it and her human plight. . . . Many others, who can readily envision the woman and her body, who cry out for her right to control her destiny, barely envision the fetus within that woman and do not imagine as real the life it might have been allowed to lead.”
While this moral war rages on, in many western Countries and some parts of Africa, Sierra Leone is calm as the silence of the lambs. Abortion had never been an issue in Political debates or has been discussed in Civil Society forums. Human Rights organizations including The Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone had not grappled with the issue and its controversy. But it should be noted that unofficial figures of abortions puts it at 15-20 abortions a week in the country. This figure is huge and I think the country has to take a stance on whether abortion should be legalized or the existing abortion laws be enforced.

Abortion Laws in Sierra Leone
Under Sierra Leone law, The English Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 is still in effect. This Act prohibits the performance of all abortions and makes a person performing an abortion and a pregnant woman consenting to the performance of an abortion subject to imprisonment. A law introduced in 1988 to regulate the practice of pharmacy (Pharmacy and Drugs Act of 1988) also prohibits any advertisement of drugs or services that could be used to terminate or influence the course of a human pregnancy.

Nonetheless, under general criminal law principles of necessity an abortion can be performed to save the life of the pregnant woman. In addition, Sierra Leone, like many Commonwealth countries whose legal systems are based on English common law, follows the holding of the 1938 English Rex v. Bourne decision in determining whether an abortion performed for health reasons is lawful. In the Rex v. Bourne decision, a physician was acquitted of the offence of performing an abortion in the case of a woman who had been raped. The court ruled that the abortion was lawful because it had been performed to prevent the woman from becoming “a physical and mental wreck”, thus setting a precedent for future abortion cases performed on the grounds of preserving the pregnant woman’s physical and mental health.

Facing the issues
I think Sierra Leone should join the debate and determine as a state, what side they should take on the issue of abortion: to what extent should they as a government be allowed to interfere with a woman's reproduction? This is a major issue in a number of countries. A parallel question also runs through the debate over legalized abortion: to what extent is the right to life a basic human right that the state has an interest in protecting?

As a nation we still have to come to grips with some of the most significant and common issues treated in the abortion debate which are:
The beginning of personhood (sometimes phrased ambiguously as "the beginning of life"): When is the embryo or fetus considered a person?
Universal human rights: Is aborting a zygote, embryo, or fetus a violation of human rights? What about fetuses with genetic disabilities? On the other hand, is not allowing a woman to terminate her unwanted pregnancy a violation of the woman's human rights?
Circumstances of conception: How important are the circumstances of conception to the ultimate fate of the embryo or fetus? Does pregnancy induced by rape or incest, or by poor or non-existent birth control use, change the permissibility of abortion?
Alternatives to abortion: Is adoption a viable and fair alternative to abortion? Are there resources available to aid mothers who are unprepared for parenthood, but who may wish to keep their child?
Limit of government authority: Are laws controlling abortion violations of privacy and/or other personal liberty rights?

In a nut shell, where does Sierra Leone stand on this emotional issue? How would we answer these key questions: Is it a woman’s fundamental right to decide? Is an abortion justified under any circumstances? When does life begin?

Sierra Leone to take a Position
Many volleys fired in this conflict deal with the question of when life begins. Few will argue the point that the fertilized egg cell is living. The question is, living as what? Mere tissue? Or is it human? Is an acorn an oak tree? Then, is a fetus a person? Does it have civil rights? The wrangling over words is endless. How ironic that in one and the same hospital, doctors may work valiantly to save the life of a premature baby and yet end the life of a fetus of the same age! The law may allow them to kill a baby inside the womb, but it’s murder if the baby is outside the womb.
There are many questions that need answers to in the issue of Abortion in this country and this is the finest time we have to banter with these questions because we are going through a constitutional review. Human Rights organizations, The Human Right Commission and the government should begin to take a stance –if the stance is to enforce the English Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 and the Pharmacy and Drugs Act of 1988 or pitch tent with Reproductive Rights activists, there has to be a clear cut and defined position of the government and the state.

However as we are looking at what to do with the issue of Abortion, we should also note that with the prevailing free access to abortion, many have felt no pressing need to guard against unwanted conception. They prefer to use abortion as a safety net to do away with any “accidents” that come along.
Statistics show that the age of puberty has dropped in this century. Hence, younger children are capable of childbearing. Are they taught the weighty responsibility that accompanies that privilege? The average Sierra Leonean loses his or her virginity by age 12. One third of married men and women are carrying on an affair or has done so in the past. Abortion finds ready clients among the promiscuous. The legalizing of abortion may make the practice somewhat safer medically and address the issue of reproductive rights but what about that unwanted piece of tissue a growing, thriving life, complete with its own set of chromosomes. Like a prophetic autobiography, it tells the detailed story of a unique individual in the making. According to renowned research professor of fetology A. W. Liley explains: “Biologically, at no stage can we subscribe to the view that the foetus is a mere appendage of the mother. Genetically, mother and baby are separate individuals from conception.” So with abortion would we not be taking the life of another Human being, would such laws legalizing abortion not tantamount to the state violation of the fundamental human Right to life? We have to chose.

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