Abortion still contentious in Kenya

December 4, 2009 12:00 am

, NAIROBI, Kenya, Dec 4 – Abortion has been a contentious issue in Kenya for a long time with people divided between pro-life and pro-choice.

The church has not been left out either in the debate which has seen sharp divisions in the past.

Harrowing stories have been told of women who have gone for backstreet abortionists and left bleeding profusely or worse still without their uterus..

Indeed, reproductive health experts have on several occasions clashed with pro-life activists who insist life begins at conception.

And now the Harmonised Draft Constitution has gone silent on the issue only stating that ‘every person has a right to life’ and ‘no person shall have their life ended arbitrarily’ but does not define a person or when life begins.

According to a reproductive health expert Dr Joseph Karanja, abortion is a ‘trivial issue’ that should not be included in the Constitution.

“The Constitution is not the place to discuss abortion issues. They should be addressed by an Act of Parliament,” Dr Karanja told Capital News.

“Once you put abortion issues in the Constitution in the format that had been proposed by some sectarian groups, you dilute the rights of women to protect their lives, their welfare and their health,” he said in an apparent reference to church leaders.

Dr Karanja who is also an associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Nairobi says abortion is not the only medical issue so it should not be addressed in the Constitution when other conditions like heart diseases, cancer and others are not addressed in the same laws.

“If you include it in the Constitution you will divide the people and you will end up not having a Constitution because of an issue that is very minor compared with the other good things that the Constitution is saying,” he argues.

However the Catholic and Anglican churches have in the past vehemently opposed the legalisation of abortion equating it to murder.

Indeed in July church leaders shouted down Dr Karanja who is the Kenya Reproductive Health and Rights Association chairman as he made his submission to the Committee of Experts (CoE) on Constitution Review promoting the CoE Vice-Chairperson Atsango Chesoni to caution both sides against taking polarising stands on the contentious issues.

“So I am asking my Christian brothers and sisters, if you had been born a Muslim, if you had been born a woman or a girl and had the misfortune of being raped what would you want and what are the choices you would want available to you,” posed an emotional Ms Chesoni.

According to Dr Karanja, the Muslims believe that life starts at ensoulment which is at 120 days from conception and before that they have no problem with abortion.

Last week, ACK Archbishop Eliud Wabukala faulted the Harmonised Draft Constitution for going silent on abortion by failing to define that life begins from conception to natural death.

The Kenyan chapter of the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) says in keeping with the international practice, abortion being a medical procedure there is no justification for its express provision within the primary legal document which is the Constitution.

“Already our laws are very clear and especially the penal code which outlaws abortion so there is already a law in this country that says abortion is not permitted,” Patricia Nyaundi, FIDA Executive Director told Capital News.

She says the Penal Code allows abortion only when the life of a mother is in danger.

Although the current Constitution criminalises abortion, the act has thrived in the backstreet with government statistics indicating that about 300,000 abortions occur in public health facilities alone annually.

On the other hand, Population Services International, PSI estimates that 14 percent of all pregnant mothers in Kenya end up aborting and nearly one in five maternal deaths are as a result of unsafe abortion.

“Nowhere in this document is there mention of abortion. I think what the experts are dealing with is defining our broad principles as a country and so I don’t think abortion was within the constitution making requirement especially because there is an existing law,” Ms Nyaundi says.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that certain people have chosen to draw very extreme interpretations of the framing of the constitution to appear to suggest that we are legalising abortion. My own reading of it is that there is no such suggestion,” she adds.

She is of the opinion that the solution to dealing with abortion issues is to address it as a social issue rather than criminalising it.

“Do we want to be concerned with termination of pregnancy or avoidance of pregnancy because you do not abort anything you abort a pregnancy?” she posed.

Ms Nyaundi says the country needs to focus more on prevention and retention of pregnancies rather than to legalise or not to legalise abortion.

“Unless we seriously pay attention to the factors that lead people to start thinking about termination of pregnancy, no law even within the Constitution will address that issue,” she says.


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