Although Kenya has gradually liberalised its abortion laws in recent years, activists are concerned that the overturning of Roe versus Wade by the US Supreme Court could set back their progress. But they are determined to continue their fight, drawing inspiration from Latin America, where three countries have expanded abortion rights in the past year.
“The wave that started in Mexico, in Argentina, in Colombia, is catching fire in Africa,” said Tabitha Griffith Saoyo, a Kenyan lawyer working to expand reproductive rights. “(T)here’s room for Africa to lead by showing that abortion is an African issue, it’s not a Western concept, and that we’re ready to protect our women.”
Access to abortion varies widely around the world. In most European countries, Australia, and Canada, as well as Russia and China, abortion is available on request with varying gestational limits. Within sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya occupies a middle ground; abortion is banned in places including Madagascar, the Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone, while South Africa, Mozambique and Benin are among a handful of countries that allow abortion on demand.
Kenya’s original abortion laws were outlined in its colonial-era penal code, which imposed harsh penalties on any woman who terminated a pregnancy and any doctor who assisted her, except in rare cases where the woman’s life was at risk.
Unsafe abortion became a leading cause of death and injury for Kenyan women and girls. A 2013 study conducted by Kenya’s Ministry of Health, in partnership with health and civil society organisations, found a rate of 30 induced abortions per 100 births. More than 157 000 women that year sought care for symptoms stemming from unsafe abortion attempts, and 37% of them experienced severe complications, such as high fever, sepsis, shock, or organ failure.
“We have seen all manner of grotesque cases,” said Anne Kihara, a practising obstetrician/gynaecologist and president of the African Federation of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. “Women who have had to have their uteruses removed, infections, the instruments that have been used, the crude things that we’ve had to remove.”
Kenya’s constitution, written in 2010, clearly states that life begins at conception. Abortion is not permitted unless a health professional deems it necessary to protect the woman’s “life or health” or “if permitted by any other written law”, a clause that left the door open for future reproductive rights legislation. The 2017 Health Act broadened the definition of “heath” from the absence of disease to include physical, mental, and social well-being.
In 2019, a landmark court ruling gave victims of sexual violence the right to an abortion. In another case decided this year, a judge found abortion care to be a fundamental constitutional right specifically referencing key points from Roe, but the decision is under appeal.
For now, abortion on demand remains illegal, and unsafe abortions are common. The most recent data from 2017 shows a maternal mortality rate of 342 deaths per 100 000 live births in Kenya. The US, by comparison, which has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries, recorded 17 deaths per 100 000 live births in 2018.
Global data from the UN shows that restricting access to abortions doesn’t make them less common, but it does make them more dangerous. Forty-five percent of abortions in the world are unsafe, the UN calculated.
Author: Staff Writer