Abortion focus in Kenya obscures legislation for safe reproductive health servicesGlobal Voices

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Global Day of Action for the Right to Health in Kenya Article 25 by team25

Kenya Article 25 Global Day of Action for the Right to Health. photo by theteam25 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Reproductive rights in Kenya are an intimate and emotional subject where hard lines have been drawn on both sides. Pro and anti-abortion activists continue to browse episodes of heightened attention when high profile cases arise and passions continue to run high. Meanwhile, the country registers number of unsafe abortions which are among the highest in Africa. Maternal mortality is high, with around 6,000 deaths per year, 17% of which are due to complications from unsafe abortion.

Limited legal recourse to access termination of pregnancy is a potential trade-off that remains contested, leaving both camps with a status quo that seems difficult to shake off. What’s at stake at both ends hotly debated question?

On the one hand, some feminist and human rights activists, such as those who rallied to the #KeepWanjikuSafe campaign in 2020, are eager to see reproductive rights extended. This would help prevent more deaths through unsafe abortion practices, which claim the lives of seven women every day and cost public health facilities over 500 million Kenyan shillings every year in postabortion care, according to a study published in 2018 by the African Center for Population and Health Research (APHRC) and the Kenyan Ministry of Health.

On the other hand, “Pro-life” groups argue that the Constitution already provides too many loopholes, which could lead to what they call “Abortion on demand.

The anti-abortion stance comes mainly from religious groups and is led by CitizenGo, a foundation linked to the Spanish far right, which is active in several countries to reduce legislation on a range of social issues, from same-sex marriage to sex education to Abortion.

In Kenya, CitizenGo launched a petition against the local branch of Marie Stopes, an international NGO providing free sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion, leading to a ban on the NGO in 2018 it was got up a month later. The most prominent CitizenGo representative in Kenya, Ann kioko, also sits on the board of trustees of the Kenya Catholic Bishops’ Conference and has ties to US-based anti-abortion and anti-LGBT groups, such as the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam).

The most recent iteration of this debate took place last year when the Reproductive Health Bill 2019 Sponsored by Senator Susan Kihika It was proposed to consolidate the “right to the best attainable standard of health, including the right to reproductive health care”, enshrined in article 43 of the Kenyan constitution. Much more ambitious than the 2014 bill that preceded it, this law proposed to make prenatal, childbirth and postnatal services free for all women in Kenya, to prohibit forced sterilization, to regulate surrogacy and to provide a more robust framework for sex education.

Both bills, however, have sparked controversy on similar issues, the most poignant being the dual issue of access to abortion and the dissemination of accurate sexual health information to adolescents. Opponents of the 2019 bill have requested that it be put on the shelves, claiming that it was equivalent to a

“Legalization of abortion through the backdoor”.

The bill has since been temporarily withdrawn to allow for further public consultation, possibly leading to reformulation. Cited in Business Daily, Mercy Mwangangi, the Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) of the Ministry of Health justified this decision by arguing that the bill is:

“Flawed” and “vague on emotional technical issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and assisted reproduction techniques (ART)”.

While making bolder proposals on the contentious issue of abortion, the 2019 Reproductive Health Care Bill does not challenge or amend Kenya’s 2010 Constitution, which makes abortion legal only in specific caseswhether a healthcare professional believes the mother’s health or life is in danger, or whether emergency surgery is necessary. According to a 2019 Supreme Court ruling, these provisions include pregnancies resulting from rape. Meanwhile, assistance in obtaining an abortion outside of these circumstances is always severely punished by the penal code.

This case threatened to overturn the entire constitutional reform project in 2010 as anti-abortion activists – mostly Catholics and Evangelicals. Christian religious leadersappeals to the religious sentiments of voters to reject the project on the grounds that it “would legalize abortion”.

Focus on abortion obscuring other reproductive health issues

"Refugees receiving treatment in a hospital in Ifo 2 refugee camp in Dadaab" by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Refugees receiving treatment in a hospital in the Ifo 2 refugee camp in Dadaab. photo by World Bank Photo Collection (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Meanwhile, doctors still lack clarity and training on how to perform abortions safely and are hesitant to continue in the absence of a reassuring legal framework.

The laser focus on abortion also obscures other reproductive health issues that rarely have a chance to be discussed amid this cacophony. Stephanie Musho, Nairobi-based human rights lawyer specializing in gender and reproductive justice, Explain what is lacking in public debates:

The bill prohibits forced sterilization. In this country, women – especially those living with HIV – have been forcibly sterilized due to the thinking of some health care providers who believe it is the best way to stop transmission of the HIV virus. mother to child, even though we know that women living with HIV for a very long time have been able to get pregnant, carry babies to term and give birth without transmitting the virus. […]

The bill promotes the right to privacy and the right to consent. When you look at patients with mental health issues, many times decisions are made for them. […] We’re not just going to make decisions for people about their bodies just because they have mental health issues.

Mark “The Abortion Bill” by its opponents, the 2019 Reproductive Health Bill is in fact a comprehensive document that only mentions termination of pregnancy in five of 39 articles (art. 26-30).

The bill had three main objectives: to ensure access to reproductive health care throughout the country through state and county efforts, including adequate budgetary allocations; to regulate assisted reproduction services, such as IVF and surrogate mother; and clarify the framework for access to adolescent reproductive health services.

In an interview on Milele FM in July 2020, the sponsor of the bill, Senator Kihika, clarified his original intention:

What prompted me to propose the bill was mainly to help couples who could not conceive. I wanted to propose a legislative framework that could bring about IVF and surrogacy. In my role as a representative of the population over time, I have encountered couples who could not obtain the services. Even though it is available, there are no laws governing it and it is extremely expensive that only the very wealthy in society can access it.

Although it does not allow same-sex couples to access surrogacy, the bill seeks to establish the right of everyone to access reproductive health (art. 7.1) and assisted procreation services. (s. 9.1) as well as the standards for informed written consent in related matters. reproductive health care.

If the bill is passed, the Birth and Death Registration Act would also be amended to facilitate the registration of a child at birth by one or more parents of a child born through surrogacy, in order avoid the legal imbroglio of automatic registration of the surrogate mother on the birth certificate. , as is currently the case.

Senator Kihika further reaffirmed that religious perspectives were duly taken into account when drafting the bill:

I am a Christian and the context of the bill also takes into account our religious background. The bill also encourages abstinence, but also offers advice on the consequences of things like abortions.

What ultimately gets lost in the pro vs anti-abortion debate is the hope of moving forward with legislation that could pave the way for millions of Kenyans to access a range of services. reproductive health.

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