Unsafe Abortions in Liberia

Tecee Boley
In this podcast from Liberian radio journalist Tecee Boley, we explore the toll unsafe abortions takes on women in Liberia—a country where elective abortions remain illegal, but are common in nonclinical settings, often leading to complications and sometimes death.



“Unsafe abortion is one of the major contributing factors to maternal mortality in Liberia.” That’s from the Director of the family health at the Ministry of Health. Dr Saye Baawo says unsafe abortions not only make many women infertile, they also result in death.

In the first study of its kind in Liberia, the government found one in ten women across six counties has had an unsafe abortion.

Tecee Boley has more:

Leela sits on a small hospital bed, her body bent over with a protective hand on her stomach. The other hand has an intravenous needle taped to it. She wears a brightly colored lappa, with a dark sweater and a pair of purple fluffy socks. She explains what brought her here.

“At the end of last month I did abortion. I was bleeding small, small. Yesterday I got through with my work. I want on the line for clothes and I felt sharp pain in my stomach and felt hot stuff coming down from me.”

Leela, which is not her real name, is at the James N. Davis Jr. memorial hospital in Jacob Town on the edge of Monrovia. The Maternity hospital is free of charge, which is why the young girl has chosen to come here.

“I went in the room and took off my clothes and I was bleeding and it was coming thick thick. I lay down and my boyfriend saw me and brought me here.”

Leela is not alone. Doctors here see at least 30 cases of unsafe abortions every month. For every three women that give birth, another woman is treated for complications because of having an unsafe abortion.  Dr. Torsou Jallabah is the medical director. “It is a very grave problem. Some of them don’t tell the truth. In the end when we go to clean up the uterus we find things like chalks and sticks.”

Dr Jallabah says most of the women that come through the doors are teenagers. They fall pregnant and instead of going to a qualified practitioner, they go to what is called a ‘quack’ or try and abort the baby themselves. The dangers of unsafe abortions are endless.

The woman can bleed to death, she risks being infected with HIV because of dirty, used equipment – and if she survives all of this, she may still be left infertile.

Abortion is restricted or illegal in 90% of African countries. In Liberia, like Sierra Leone and Ghana, abortions can only be done if a licensed physician believes having the baby would harm the women’s mental or physical health. It is also allowed if the unborn baby has problems or if the pregnancy was the result of rape. But many women are unaware of the law and finding a licensed practitioner who is willing to carry out an abortion is almost impossible.

Nationwide statistics are not available but the Ministry of Health surveyed women across six counties in the first study of its kind in Liberia. It found over 30% of women with unwanted pregnancies have had an unsafe abortion.

Dr. Baawo says every community is affected: “Yes it is all over. It cut across every tribe and culture.”

Leela, a 26 year-old woman who looks much like a girl, is left fragile and weak. Above her hangs a spotless white mosquito net. A wooden shelf on the wall is where her belongings are: a bundle of clothes, a few bottles of cosmetics and a bar of soap. Leela says she feels better today. But why did she have an abortion? “I am in school. I attend the university.”

But why do other women choose to have unsafe abortions? Dr.Baawo explains: “The reasons are many.”

The World Health Organization says unsafe abortion is a major cause of maternal mortality. The Ministry of Health says it is aware of the problem in Liberia and is strengthening services across the country to deal with it. Education of the younger population, says Dr Baawo, is the only way to stop women from choosing to have unsafe abortions: “Unsafe abortion would not occur if young people are well educated on how to protect themselves in the first place. Maternal mortality would not be high in Liberia if people understand the importance of family planning. So family planning is a key intervention to reducing maternal mortality.”

Leela, recovering at the James N Davies Jr. Memorial hospital, is one of the lucky ones. She came face to face with those dangers but was lucky enough to survive. Unlike many other women, her body was not permanently damaged. She can still have children one day. But she vows never to do it again. “I was just bleeding plenty plenty. Myself I was afraid. I just want to tell girls that they shouldn’t be in the habit of doing abortion because it’s not good.”

About The Artist 

Tecee is a leading radio and print reporter in Liberia. She works at Liberia Women Democracy Radio as a reporter and presents a program about rural women. Tecee is one of 12 Liberian reporters chosen to be part of New Narratives, a project supporting Africa's leading independent media. In 2011 she won a Pulitzer Grant to travel to World Water Week in Sweden and to report on Liberia's troubled progress on water and sanitation issues. Tecee has also been awarded Liberia's Development Reporter of the year, one of only three women to win national reporting awards. She has contributed to the World Policy Journal and US public radio. Tecee says, "I am already living out my dream, to broadcast voices that are rarely heard. But I don’t just want those voices to be heard, I want authorities worldwide to take action." Learn more about Tecee and the New Narratives Organization at  www.newnarratives.org