The Center for Reproductive Rights and Rwandan advocates are calling on President Paul Kagame to sign into law a new penal code that would remove criminal penalties for a woman who terminates her pregnancy and for doctors who perform abortions in cases of rape, incest, or forced marriage, or to preserve the life and health of the woman.
While the draft penal code would be a huge step in the right direction for Rwandan women's reproductive rights, advocates also urged the government to further remove penalties for all women who terminate their pregnancies and providers of safe abortion services-not just in cases of rape, incest, forced marriage, or threats to their health.
The advocates also raised serious concerns about proposed requirements that victims of rape, incest, and forced marriage must obtain court approval prior to an abortion and that any legal abortion must be performed by a medical doctor with written consent from a second physician.
"Rwandan officials have a clear obligation and opportunity to lift the harsh penalties that have been imposed on women and healthcare providers for decades," said Elisa Slattery, regional director for Africa at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "Given Rwanda's commitment to respecting women's rights and reducing maternal deaths, the urgency of ensuring access to safe and legal abortion couldn't be clearer.
"While we strongly urge the government to consider decriminalizing abortion completely, we call on officials to at the very least amend the draft penal code and remove the most harmful barriers to obtaining safe and legal abortions."
In a letter sent to President Kagame today [PDF attached], advocates note that while criminal penalties would be lifted in these narrow circumstances, women who terminate their pregnancies for other reasons would still be at risk of imprisonment for up to three years and fines of up to 200,000 Rwanda francs.
Further, under the proposed narrow exceptions in the draft penal code, a woman would be required to have a court certify that her pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or forced marriage. This kind of restriction has been recognized in other African countries as far too cumbersome and ineffective in such a time-sensitive situation. For example, when Ethiopia revised its abortion laws in 2004 to include an exception for rape and incest, it required only a statement from the woman herself to prove she was a victim of abuse.
Similarly, the advocates raise serious concerns that legally-allowed abortions must be performed by a medical doctor and with written consent of another doctor-despite the fact that the World Health Organization has stated that mid-level providers, such as nurses or clinical officers, can safely provide first-trimester abortion services.
Requiring such onerous consultation before a procedure can severely delay a woman from obtaining an abortion and discourage doctors from providing abortion services.
In addition to the Center for Reproductive Rights, the letter was also signed by the Health Development Initiative - Rwanda, the Rwandese Association for Family Welfare (ARBEF), and Ipas.
Members of the Chamber of Deputies recently passed the draft penal code with the majority voting in favor of the provisions decriminalizing abortion and allowing the procedure under certain circumstances. The draft code is now with the President, awaiting his assent or veto.
Rwanda's current law, since 1977, permits abortion only when the pregnancy endangers a woman's health. It further requires two doctors to verify that the continuation of the pregnancy endangers the woman's health and to state it in writing and the abortion has to be performed by a doctor. These restrictive laws have led to the imprisonment of hundreds of women simply because they had no other option than to turn to unsafe and clandestine abortions.
According to interviews conducted by ARBEF, the experiences of young women who have been imprisoned for terminating their own pregnancies are often bleakly similar. Many young women had little to no information about contraception or support from their male partners or families if they had decided to continue their pregnancy.
Human rights bodies have repeatedly condemned the criminalization of abortion as a violation of women's rights to life, health, privacy, and freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Last year, Anand Grover, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health issued a groundbreaking report calling on all governments to decriminalize abortion, stating, "Criminal laws penalizing and restricting induced abortion are the paradigmatic examples of impermissible barriers to the realization of women's right to health and must be eliminated."
More information about abortion restrictions around the globe is available at CRR's interactive World Abortion Laws map.