By Zoe Alsop
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Church leaders in Kenya are opposing a provision in a draft of a national constitution that includes emergency exceptions to the country's abortion ban. A recent study links the ban to the deaths of at least hundreds of women a year.
Those who sought help in hospitals were often met by nurses and doctors who were corrupt, untrained, ill-equipped or even abusive, finishing incomplete abortions without analgesics or calling women names, according to the report.
The report includes the story of a 14-year-old in the slum of Kibera who had sex with men for less than $2 after her widowed mother was hospitalized for two years. When she became pregnant she underwent an illegal abortion that led to a serious infection. She was too afraid to go to the hospital fearing, erroneously, that she could be jailed. She and her mother tried to treat her infection with topical disinfectant to no avail. She died last July.
Many young women from Kibera are arrested for having abortions, according to the center's report, and few understand that post-abortion care is legal and public hospitals are supposed to provide the service without cost if the patient is unable to pay.
Kenya's Ministry of Public Health told Women's eNews that it hopes to lower the death toll of illegal abortions by both improving and expanding family planning programs and ensuring that when women do suffer complications from illegal abortions, they have access to proper care.
Recently, the government has been training midwife nurse practitioners working outside of urban centers in post-abortion care.
"The country's approach is to try to reduce the need for abortion in the first place and to mitigate the complications when they arise by giving services to the people, by offering comprehensive post-abortion care which is close to the people," said Dr. Josephine Kibaru, who heads the country's Department of Family Health, in an interview.
"What we know is that health workers save lives," Kibaru said. "When we talk about maternal mortality, we are trying to save a woman's life. Whether she is bleeding from a post-postpartum hemorrhage or after an unsafe abortion, it is all part and parcel of our work."
Henry Njagi, spokesperson for the National Council of Churches, does not care to acknowledge the problems of dangerous and often fatal abortions flagged by the Center for Reproductive Rights report.
"Our position is that the abortions shouldn't be happening in the first place," he said in a recent telephone interview. "Pregnancies should not be terminated. What is required is education for the women so that they don't get pregnant if they are not interested in getting the baby."
When pressed on the issue of pregnancies in difficult circumstances like rape, Njagi hung up the phone and did not respond to further questions sent via e-mail.
In a section of abortion-related questions on the Web site of the National Council of Churches, Secretary General Karanja responds to one about what happens to a girl who aborts a child. "She is guilty of murder," he says.
A lawyer at Kenya's Federation of Women Lawyers said such attitudes are by no means universal here and that it's still possible to keep the clause protecting a woman's right to an emergency abortion in the constitution.
"There are threats and half truths and falsehoods put out to create religious fear in the people," said the lawyer, who asked not to be named in keeping with the group's policy of only allowing its executive director to be quoted publicly. "But we find that whenever we go out to explain to people the real reasons for allowing abortion they immediately are sympathetic or would support abortion under difficult circumstances."
Zoe Alsop is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
"In Harm's Way: The Impact of Kenya's Restrictive Abortion Law," Center for Reproductive Rights:
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