DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women with unwanted pregnancies in Sierra Leone will no longer have to undergo unsafe abortions after parliament passed a law which activists said on Thursday would save countless lives in the country with the world's highest maternal death rate.

The Safe Abortion Act, passed on Tuesday, made the procedure legal and replaced an 1861 law that banned abortion in the West African nation except when it was necessary to save the mother's life.

Around one in 70 women in Sierra Leone dies during or shortly after childbirth, the World Health Organization said.

One-third of these deaths are the result of complications from unsafe abortions, often carried out by untrained people in unhygienic and dangerous surroundings, campaigners say.

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"Practically everyone in Sierra Leone knows someone who has been affected in some way by unsafe abortion - people have lost wives, daughters, and loves ones," said Val Tucker from Ipas, which works to advance women's sexual and reproductive rights.

The Act, which has yet to be signed into law by President Ernest Bai Koroma, allows women to have an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, after which it is permitted only in cases of rape, incest or risk to the health of fetus or mother.

Girls under 18 can have an abortion only with the consent of a parent or guardian, and the law specifies a minimum four-year jail sentence for unqualified abortionists.

"This law is a huge opportunity to save countless lives from preventable deaths," said Ufuoma Omo-Obi, country director at charity Marie Stopes, one of several organizations, activists and politicians who have pushed for the reform since 2010.

The law could also prove significant for victims of sexual violence and rape, Omo-Obi said, by reducing the stigma and the trauma they suffer in a country where memories of wartime rape remain strong, 13 years after the civil war ended.

Sexual violence was also rife in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak and led to a spike in teenage pregnancies, Amnesty International said in a report last month.

The Abortion Act, passed five months after Sierra Leone became one of the last West Africa nations to back the Maputo Protocol, an international treaty on women's rights, could save the country more than $100,000 a year, an Ipas study found.

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It said the government spent up to $230,000 a year on staff and medical supplies to treat patients who had had botched abortions.

(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)