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Kenya Debates Abortion Bill

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A bill now before Kenya's parliament would legalize abortion, making Kenya the first East African country to do so. The issue of abortion is highly emotional in Kenya. Women's groups argue that the Reproductive Health and Rights Bill will protect women from death and injury due to backstreet abortions, while critics say abortion violates African traditions and culture and is being pressed by Western interests.

Some 2,000 Kenyan women are estimated to die each year because of botched abortions.

Illegal 'backstreet' abortions

According to Kenyan government figures, 300,000 backstreet abortions are performed in the country yearly, with 20,000 women being hospitalized due to abortion-related complications.

It is numbers like these that propelled the Federation of Women Lawyers, or FIDA, to help draft the Reproductive Health and Rights Bill 2008, which seeks to legalize abortion. Grace Kimani is director of programs with FIDA.

"Instead of watching women die out of having unsafe abortions, or women being hospitalized and the government using a large percentage of its resources to then treat women who have had incomplete or unsafe abortions," Kimani said. "Why not then provide legislation whereby women feel safe and comfortable in terms of coming forward to have a termination of pregnancy?"

Legal vs. Illegal abortions

The abortion debate has been raging in Kenya since the bill's introduction in Parliament last year, and with President Barack Obama's recent decision to lift the ban on funding groups that support abortion

On the one side are those who argue that women have the right to safe medical procedures if they choose to terminate a pregnancy.

On the other is the view that choosing to terminate the life of a fetus is not only morally wrong but also is alien to African culture, which traditionally welcomes the arrival of children.

"Children even belong to the community, and there is no community that throws away a child," said gynecologist and pro-life activist Dr. Jean Kagia. "Even when the mother dies, there is always somebody else who will take over that child."

In Dr. Kagia's view, the issue does not boil down to a simple clash between the rights of a woman verses the rights of her unborn child, as is the case in the U.S. and other places.

She argues that African women need to have their basic rights fulfilled first. 

"The common African woman does not have access to clean water. She does not have a good shelter. She is going to go for long distances to get water. She does not have access to good food. The health care services are very, very far away, and you find some of them even do not have access to education," she said. "So if you look at that woman, her priority is her rights. It may not be to kill her baby, but to have these basic rights, which she is missing."

She blames what she calls "Western interests" for introducing and fueling the abortion debate, saying they are seeking to undermine traditional African values.  

But this view is dismissed by pro-choice advocates, such as Grace Kimani. 

"There were herbs and there were different concoctions used in our past, in our culture, in the olden days that were used actually very early on in pregnancy to ensure that the pregnancy does not continue," she said.

She says that poor rural and urban women rarely get child-rearing assistance from family members, friends, and even their husbands, who are in equally dire circumstances.

For now, the debate continues. Kenya is the first East African country to consider legalizing abortion.

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