As politicians in the U.S. try to take away abortion rights from its citizens, Sierra Leone just did the opposite.

In 2015 alone, state legislators in the U.S. introduced nearly 400 bills to restrict abortion access. Meanwhile, Sierra Leone just made the procedure legal.

On Dec. 8, 2015, Sierra Leone's parliament overwhelmingly passed the Safe Abortion Act, lifting a 154-year-old ban on abortion.


Abortion had been illegal in Sierra Leone since 1861 (before the lightbulb was invented!). Repealing the law has the potential to save many women's lives, as Sierra Leoneans know all too well what happens when women don't have access to the resources and care they need.

Women taking to the streets to support the Safe Abortion Act. Image via Ipas, used with permission.

Sierra Leone leads the world in maternal mortality, which isn't a statistic any country should be proud of.

1 in 70 women in Sierra Leone die during or shortly after childbirth. One-third of those deaths are due to complications from unsafe abortions, according to the World Health Organization.

"Practically everyone in Sierra Leone knows someone who has been affected in some way by unsafe abortion — people have lost wives, daughters, and love[d] ones," said Val Tucker, from the reproductive rights group Ipas.

No woman with an unwanted pregnancy should have to resort to visiting an unskilled person in unhygienic conditions to get the abortion she needs. But with the procedure banned, that was what many chose to do. And the dire outcome of illegal, unsafe abortions isn't specific to Sierra Leone.

Other countries where abortion has been legalized show how many more women's lives are saved when they have access to the procedure in a clean, safe space.

Photo by U.K. Department for International Development/Flickr.

It turns out abortion-related deaths go way down in countries with less restrictive laws (1 or fewer per 100,000 childbirths) than in countries with more restrictive abortion laws (34 deaths per 100,000 childbirths).

That was the case when abortion became legal in the United States in 1973. Pregnancy-related deaths and hospitalizations due to complications of unsafe abortion effectively ended. The same thing happened recently when abortion law was reformed in Ethiopia.

"We don’t see the tragedy of severe abortion complication and death any more in this hospital, it has become something of the past," one Ethiopian doctor noted to Ipas.

Image via Ipas, used with permission.

It goes to show that restricting access to abortion doesn't stop abortion from happening — it only makes it unsafe.

Having safe and legal access will undoubtedly save women's lives in Sierra Leone. And there's something that could save even more: putting sexual and reproductive health information more out in the open. As 44% of 18-year-old girls in Sierra Leone are married, taboos on sex only keep people in the dark. Access to contraception and other sexual health services can play a significant role in the success of the country's future, and luckily organizations like Ipas are leading the way.

Legalizing abortion 154 years later is better than never. This move will help women and families in Sierra Leone decide what's best for their own futures, and it shows the progress the world around us is making.

Politicians in the U.S. should take note.

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