Date: Thu, 30 Sep 1999 21:40:33 -0500 (CDT)
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Rich Winkel)
Subject: RIGHTS-KENYA: Abortion Debate Turns Nasty
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Abortion Debate Turns Nasty
By Judith Achieng', IPS, 29 September 1999
NAIROBI, Sep 29 (IPS) - The abortion debate between the church and rights groups in Kenya has turned nasty, with the government of President Daniel arap Moi watching from a distance.
Enraged by the call to legalise abortion, the Catholic Church, which argues that abortion violates the sanctity of human life, says it will not compromise on the issue, even if it means launching a door-to-door anti-abortion campaign.
"Abortion is the first degree murder of an innocent defenceless person, by a professional who is otherwise trained to defend the life," says Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a' Nzeki who heads the Catholic Church in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
Rights groups insist that women must be given a right of choice in fertility issues, and religious considerations should not be used as the basis on which national laws should be implemented.
"The right to choose whether or not to have an abortion is a right and need for every woman. The church must let women decide for themselves," says Njoki Ngung'u of the International Federation of Women Lawyers, Kenya chapter (FIDA-K).
Ngung'u is more blunt in her views. "Should a woman in a secular state be compelled to carry a pregnancy she does not want, just because it is against the doctrine of one church? Should a woman go unwillingly through full-term pregnancy, bearing a child only to give it up for adoption?" she wonders.
The debate on abortion was sparked by calls last month by medical experts to legalise the practice as a measure of curbing increasing cases of the deaths occurring in Kenyan hospitals, from abortion-related complications.
Abortion is outlawed in Kenya, and only is permitted under strict exceptions such as in cases as where the "mother's life is in danger" or when the foetus has irredeemable defects.
Ndung'u says such a law is not only punitive, but also traumatic for women who are forced to continue carrying pregnancies they do not want, even though Kenya has signed all international rights conventions guaranteeing a woman's right to privacy, bodily integrity, and health including safe abortion.
Besides HIV/AIDS and cervical cancer, abortion remains one of the biggest killers of women in Kenya, with some 200,000 case of complications associated with unsafe abortion, leading to at least 10,000 deaths annually.
Nearly 50 percent of all gynaecological admissions at Kenya's main Kenyatta National Hospital, with a capacity of up to 8,000 beds, and as much as 25 percent cases in smaller hospitals, are due to complications related to unsafe abortions, according to health officials.
Medical experts in Kenya argue that if legalised, abortion would be much safer and cheaper because it would openly be performed in licenced clinics with better facilities.
Dr. Stephen Ochiel, head of Kenya's Obstetrical and Gynaecological society, says the issue of abortion needs more serious thought, than it is currently getting from the church.
He argues that abortion should be understood from the point of view of a woman wishing to terminate her pregnancy for a wide range of reasons including rape, incest, failed contraception or ignorance like in the case of teenage girls.
"Once a woman decides to terminate her pregnancy, it is difficult to convince her to change her mind. She will use any available means to terminate it," he says.
Ochiel says the current laws in Kenya have only driven majority of women and girls who are poor, into dangerous shortcuts to abortion, often with serious consequences.
"Criminalisation of abortion only increases unsafe abortions and maternal morbidity and mortality," he says. "It is only through collaboration and cooperation that laws discriminating against women in reproductive and sexual health can be removed from our midst".
Although abortion is discreetly carried out in licenced clinics, the procedure often takes too long because it is illegal, and too expensive for many patients who often fall in the lower income bracket.
An abortion performed in a licenced clinic can cost as much as 8,000 shillings, way too above for many patients like teenage school girls with no income.
One US dollar is equal to 74 shillings.
As a result, Ochiel says, many women and girls have resorted to crude methods of pregnancy termination, such as drugs, herbs, often leading to untold suffering.
Some health "experts" have set up "backstreet" abortion clinics in their houses where, often with inadequate knowledge of the anatomy of a female reproductive tract, they use tools like metal, rubber and catheters to procure abortions.
Many of the "backstreet" patients have ended up in hospital with complications, either from excessive bleeding or severe bacterial infection in the reproductive tract, the commonest causes of abortion deaths.
Others who have failed to procure abortions try to hide their pregnancies until birth, after which they dump their infants in pit latrines or garbage dumps.
Hardly a day passes in Kenya without the media reporting a case of an abandoned infant, a factor which has contributed in the rising number of street children.
The UN Children's Fund (Unicef) says more than 500,000 children earn their living in Kenyan streets. Maternal mortality in Kenya is also too high, at 200 for ever 100,000 live births majority of mothers lacking access to basic health services.
Despite the grim picture of "backstreet" deaths in Kenya, the Catholic Church has maintained the position it held during the 1995 Cairo population conference where it described abortion as "genocide and a crime against humanity".
"If their mothers would have aborted them, would they (Pro- abortion groups) have been alive today to ask for abortion to be legalised?" wonders Archbishop Ndingi.
The church, which has also been opposed to all forms of contraception, has also resisted government's plans to introduce sex-education in schools, as part of its war against HIV/AIDS.
South Africa is the only country in Africa which has expanded legislation on abortion to include failed contraception or even a mother's inability to sufficiently provide for the infant.
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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