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Abortion Campaigners Clash in Kenyan Court

Two groups with opposing views on abortion clashed in a Kenyan court during the trial of a doctor charged with murder for performing abortions.

Father Emmanuel Ngugi of the Holy Family Basilica calmed anti-abortion campaigners who marched from the nearby church to the High Court to counter a group of pro-abortion doctors supporting defendant Dr. John Nyamu.

The doctor and two nurses from his Nairobi clinic were arrested in May and charged with 15 counts of murder. Their arrest followed the discovery of 15 fetuses dumped by a river in downtown Nairobi.

Abortion is illegal in Kenya, except in cases where the pregnancy is a threat to the life of the mother.

According a study of abortion in Kenya released in May, an estimated 300,000 women procure abortions annually. Of this number, 2,600 die from complications. Participating in the study were the Kenya Medical Association, the Kenyan chapter of the Federation of Women Lawyers, and the Ministry of Health.

Kenya Medical Association Chairman Dr. Stephen Ochiel urged doctors to appear in court in white gowns and stethoscopes to show solidarity with the accused and to express their displeasure with the charges.

"Nyamu is wrongly charged with murder. If it is a question of abortion he should be charged with abortion, but not murder," he said. "A doctor in the course of duty can not be accused/charged with murder. A doctor has no malice aforethought. So we are saying charge him, fine, but charge him with the right charge. We are telling the Attorney General, 'do not persecute Nyamu, prosecute him.'"

But some members of the doctors' association, like Nairobi gynecologist Dr. Jean Kagia, say the group should not interfere in the legal process. "If somebody has been caught up with a criminal offense, the law should be left to carry out its own course and prove him either innocent or guilty without undue interference," said Dr. Kagia. "What I do not like is the whole idea of a Kenya Medical Association chairman telling us that we should go with stethoscopes and white coats and try to sway the opinion of the court and the public. I do not think that is right."

Dr. Nyamu's case has re-kindled debate on abortion in Kenya, with some people calling for its legalization.

The Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya (FIDA) proposed that the law banning abortion should be reviewed; saying many women are dying because of lack of access to abortion.

Dr. Kaggia, the leader of the Protecting Life Movement of Kenya, says abortion is murder and anyone involved in it should face the law. She says emphasis should be placed on teaching young people about abstinence. She says legalizing abortion will lead to an increase in the number of abortions and immorality.

But Dr. Ochiel says the law does not stop doctors from performing abortions. He says rich women can pay for abortion services, while the poor and young are left to procure unsafe abortions because the law criminalizes the act.

"No woman takes termination of pregnancy lightly. It is agonizing, it is painful and they do not like it. But when they have made their decision no law, no police officer, no army, no churchman will stand in her way," explained Dr. Ochiel. "Therefore do not criminalize abortion, allow women to have their choice, let them do what they want to do within the law."

Health Minister Charity Ngilu was reported in the Kenya Times newspaper as having said anti-abortion laws will remain in force and challenging those who advocate their repeal to concentrate on the campaign against unwanted pregnancies.