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Grisly Discovery Leads to Renewed Debate Over Abortion in Kenya - 2004-05-28


In Kenya, the debate over the legalization of abortion has re-ignited, following the discovery of garbage bags filled with fetuses dumped on a Nairobi road earlier this week.

The ministry of health's deputy director of medical services, Dr. Jack Nyamongo, told VOA Friday, the government is conducting DNA tests on the bodies of 15 fetuses found stuffed in garbage bags on a road near a river in Nairobi, to determine the identity of their mothers.

"The police are just checking it," he said. "If someone has to go to court, you have to show evidence that they came from the mothers." Dr. Nyamongo said the police are treating the incident as a criminal case.

Abortion is illegal in Kenya, except in cases where a mother's life or health is endangered. Medical personnel carrying out abortions and the mothers themselves could face criminal charges.

One doctor already has been arrested, and his clinics shut down, after investigators found medical records of patients who had undergone abortions.

Debate about the legality of abortions took place last year. It was part of the process of drafting Kenya's new constitution. The latest draft says life of a human being begins at conception, and, consequently, would outlaw abortion.

The discovery of the fetuses, in what the local press has dubbed the "babies in bags" scandal, has reignited the debate.

The programs coordinator at the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect, Agnes Kithikii, said abortion is not only against Kenya's penal code, but violates the Children's Act as well. She said every child, from the moment of conception, is entitled to life, and abortions should not be legalized.

She said most Kenyans were horrified by the discovery of the fetuses, and are not in favor of abortion. "There are very few people, according to the population, and the way I saw people expressing themselves, that are accepting abortion," she said. "But they are supporting the preventative measures to becoming pregnant."

Rather than legalizing abortions, Ms. Kithikii said, the government should address what she sees as the root causes that lead women to seek abortions, such as poverty or family breakdown.

But those who favor the legalization of abortion argue women are often putting themselves in great danger by trying to abort on their own or seeking the services of unskilled individuals, who conduct the procedure in unsanitary conditions.

According to a report released earlier this month by the Kenyan Medical Association and others, some 300,000 abortions are performed in Kenya each year. An estimated 20,000 women and girls are hospitalized with complications from abortions, and around 2,600 women die every year.

A senior lecturer at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Nairobi, Dr. Peter Gichangi, said legalizing abortion could prevent a lot of this suffering. "The legalization of abortion has a place in addressing the complication of illegal abortion," said Dr. Gichangi, "but I must emphasize that is not the only mechanism."

The legalization of abortion, he said, needs to be accompanied by access to contraceptives and education about issues contributing to unwanted pregnancies.

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