News / Africa

US Groups Scrutinize Abortion Details in Kenya's Draft Constitution

Statistics indicate nearly half of deaths from unsafe abortions take place in Africa
Statistics indicate nearly half of deaths from unsafe abortions take place in Africa
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Nico Colombant

U.S. groups are closely scrutinizing abortion language in Kenya's draft constitution which will be submitted in a referendum in August.  Our correspondent has reaction from the groups, after several U.S. lawmakers demanded a probe into whether U.S. officials are breaking a little-known U.S. law by favoring the document.

Both abortion-rights and anti-abortion groups have reservations about Kenya's proposed constitution, and its inclusion of abortion law, but for different reasons.

The director of international operations at the pro-Christian and pro-life American Center for Law and Justice, Jordan Sekulow, approves a line saying life begins at conception, but not what follows.

"It starts out saying life begins at conception but has the well-known abortion exception known as the health of the mother exception, and the way that has been interpreted not just in the United States but around the world by judges and attorneys is that basically that allows for abortion on demand," said Jordan Sekulow. "That can be for any reason, because you do not feel good, because you are pregnant, so you can have an abortion.  So what it does is put conflicting language in a constitution that just does not coordinate correctly."

Sekulow has been been working with affiliate partners in Kenya at the East Africa Center for Law and Justice to defeat the draft constitution for the abortion reason and several other parts of the document, such as the inclusion of Islamic courts.

The proposed constitution outlaws abortion, but not if a trained health professional estimates there is a need for one in an emergency situation, if the woman's life is in danger, or if an abortion is permitted by any other written law.

The U.S. ambassador in Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, welcomed parliament's approval of the overall draft text.  For years, the United States has been pressing Kenya to pass a new constitution, and the U.S. government has spent money to help with the process.  But several Republican lawmakers are pointing out the existence of a law called the Siljander Amendment, which prohibits U.S. foreign assistance funds to lobby for or against abortion.

Earlier this month, New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith, who is the leading Republican on the House Africa and Global Health Subcommittee, and two other congressmen, wrote a letter requesting an immediate audit of all U.S. funds used in relation to Kenya's proposed constitution.

U.S. groups like the Center for Reproductive Rights are also looking at the constitutional developments in Kenya closely, but they are concerned with the health of women.  Kenyan organizations estimate up to 300,000 abortions take place every year, even though the practice is currently outlawed.

Elisa Slattery, the group's legal adviser for Africa, says the proposed constitution makes progress, but it does not do enough to ensure women have a choice to seek a legal and safe abortion.

"Basically right now, it talks about a health and a life exception, but we know that women terminate pregnancies for many reasons including sexual violence, or grinding poverty, and so restricting access to safe abortions does not stop women from ending an unwanted pregnancy," said Elisa Slattery. "It just forces them to use painful, dangerous and often lethal methods."

Slattery says her group's research shows more than a third of maternal deaths in Kenya are caused by botched abortions.  She cites statistics that say 44 percent of deaths from unsafe abortions take place in Africa.

"Women drink bleach," she said. "They drink detergent.  They insert pens into their uteruses.  We interviewed a medical provider who said she had a woman coming to her facility who had had an unsafe abortion and they could smell her as she walked down the street because she was septic.  There were flies following her.  And for the women who do survive they often are rendered infertile or they are disabled for life.  And then there are the women who die and often their deaths just are not captured.  There just are so many untold stories of women who have died from unsafe abortions."

Advocates from both sides agree Kenya's constitution has become a battleground for the abortion issue.  They are also equally surprised the law concerning abortion was included in Kenya's new constitution.  A 'yes' vote for the draft constitution, as Kenyan media report is likely, will make it very difficult to change the way the country's system deals with the divisive matter.

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