Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a dangerous place to be pregnant. It has one of the highest rates of maternal death in the world, second only to Afghanistan in the Asia Pacific region. Only slightly more than 50 percent of women give birth in a facility or with the help of a skilled birth attendant, and although the PNG government supports universal access to contraception, the reality is merely one-third of women are able to access and use it.
Abortion was criminalized in Papua New Guinea in 1975. No one had, however, been convicted for ending a pregnancy until October 2015, when Leoba Devana and her husband, James Channel, were found guilty of killing their unborn child and sentenced to five years in prison each. Both are currently serving their sentences.
According to media reports, Leoba was 23 when she became pregnant with her third child. Her pregnancies had been difficult and she experienced obstructed labor during the second, leaving her afraid and traumatized. According to the judgment handed down by the court that convicted her, Leoba was afraid that she would die during the pregnancy or delivery. Even though abortion is illegal in PNG, Leoba and her husband managed to obtain the drugs to terminate her pregnancy. When her mother found out what she had done, she ordered Leoba to turn herself in to the police.
Global statistics show that banning abortion does not prevent desperate women and girls from ending unwanted pregnancies. Many face severe health risks and even death by seeking out unsafe abortions. Many countries, recognizing this, are putting in place policies that mandate the provision of post-abortion care even where abortion is criminalized.
Activists and medical professionals in PNG have taken up Leoba’s case, deeply concerned that it will set a precedent and drive women away from post-abortion care.
Locking up parents who have taken steps to terminate a pregnancy is not the way to address unsafe abortion. As we celebrate International Women’s Day and the many achievements of women, the PNG government needs to free Leoba and her husband and commit resources to improving women’s access to contraception and health centers. It should also look to decriminalize abortion and ensure access for all women to a fundamental medical procedure.