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Protests cloud Kenya abortion debate

28 June 07 14:19 GMT

By Juliet Njeri
BBC News, Nairobi

Four Kenyan women, who were set to share their personal stories about undergoing abortion, had to pull out of a discussion forum at the last minute following threats and intimidation from anti-abortion activists.

The forum, organised to initiate discussion on unsafe abortions, was disrupted by activists claiming to represent the rights of unborn children.

The pro-life campaigners stormed the event in the capital, Nairobi, waving placards and shouting that legalising abortion was tantamount to legalising murder.

Abortions are banned in Kenya unless the procedure is necessary to save the mother's life.

However, over 300,000 Kenyan women undergo backstreet abortions every year, say human rights groups, and at least 2,600 of them die as a result of the often dangerous procedures.

The Kenya Human Rights Commission says the issue of unsafe abortions in Kenya is an "epidemic of gigantic proportions" which has received no government attention.

Personal stories

To address this issue, a mock tribunal was organised to encourage public debate and discussion about the highly sensitive issue.

But on the day, only audio recordings of the four women's stories were heard, after it was felt too dangerous for them to appear in person - highlighting how controversial and emotive the issue is and why abortions are conducted in secret.

The majority of those who seek abortions are young girls under the age of 25, who are afraid of ostracism and social stigma, and lack the financial means to take care of a child.

Margaret's story was a tale of double tragedy.

The 24-year-old resident of a Nairobi slum told the audience that her mother died while undergoing an illegal abortion in 2001.

Margaret herself got pregnant a few years later and gave birth to a boy, despite pressure from her boyfriend to procure an abortion.

Then years later, she got pregnant again but this time, she knew that she was not ready to have another child, although her cousin talked to her about adoption.

With her boyfriend's help, she managed to get her hands on $80 needed to pay for a backstreet abortion.

Death warrant

The four women's voices wavered with emotion as they narrated their stories, and at times ragged breathing suggested that the women were crying.

The audience gasped in horror as the women listed the tools used by these abortionists - knitting needles, water pipes, wires and herbal concoctions.

One of the stories was narrated by the sister of a 14-year-old girl, Sandra, who died after a botched abortion.

Health professionals also testified about their difficult and often hopeless attempts to treat victims of botched abortions.

Nurse Anne Mulinge told of a 16-year-old girl who was brought to the hospital in a septic coma after an abortionist perforated her rectum and her uterus during an abortion.

The girl's life was eventually saved but doctors had to perform a hysterectomy and she has a permanent colostomy bag.

"It is time to decide how we will save these powerless and voiceless women," Mrs Mulinge told the audience. "This could be your sister, daughter, mother or wife."

Amid the protests, Maximillia Muninzwa, the director of a pro-life organisation called Heartbeat Kenya, said from outside the venue that dissenting views must be acknowledged.

He argues that Kenya would be signing its death warrant if it legalised abortion.

"We have seen it happen in the West and if we legalise abortion, we are doomed. In Europe today, women are being paid to give birth and they are coming here to kill our babies," he told the BBC.

Sober debate

Assistant Health Minister Enoch Kibunguchy urged sobriety when discussing the issue.

Dr Kibunguchy, a qualified gynaecologist, said abortion was a public health concern, and that it was impossible to address the issue of unsafe abortion without addressing the prevalence of poverty.

"It is time to think outside the box on this issue. Those who speak loudest against abortion speak from inside the box. Life is neither black nor white and I hope that we will strike the delicate balance in between," Dr Kibunguchy said during his address.

Dr Stephen Ochiel, a gynaecologist and the chairman of the Kenya Medical Association, told the forum that he was once vehemently opposed to abortion but changed his stance when one of his young patients died after an unsafe abortion.

"The law [banning abortion] is the greatest killer of women because it does not criminalise sex, but it criminalises abortion," he said.

"Maternal death in this country is scandalous. Women are dying from causes that can be prevented," he said, calling for the legalisation of abortion to save women's lives.

Abortion is illegal in most of Africa where it is estimated more than 30,000 women die each year as a result of unsafe procedures. Do you think it should be legalised? Have you had a backstreet abortion?

Thank you for your comments - a selection of them appear below.

Legalising abortion is not the solution. I had one a few years ago, it was legal and very well performed. However, no one mentions the mental struggles that a woman has to endure after the procedure. I can honestly say that this is the worst thing i have very done in my life. I think the Kenyan government should focus more on educating women on safe sex and other options besides abortion. Abortion is a easy way out that leaves most women damaged.

I think it should be legalised depending on the circumstances of the person concerned. I underwent a backstreet abortion and almost died from it. I come from Zimbabwe where it is not legal to have an abortion. At that time my current husband had left to go work in South Africa for greener pastures and I found myself pregnant - my son was about a year old (I have two other children also). He did not return and was not sending any money to help with the children so my situation was very bad financially and emotionally I was broken I almost wanted to commit suicide I had no-one to turn to given also the strict upbringing and culture. I was working in a hospital as I am a professional person and religiously I know it to be very bad to kill an unborn child but I had to do it. I think there should be counselling offered to these women also as it is very sad to make a decision like that alone without having someone to talk to - to help you before and after as it affects you emotionally also. Especially coming from Africa where there is strict upbringing and the cultural believes are strong. Also at the hospital I worked in the ultrasound department I saw a lot of women who had undergone these backstreet abortions - some came in with the remains still inside (some were alive) as there were very scared to talk. The most horrific experience I had of this abortion was the aftermath when I had to have a DNC at the hospital without any anaesthetic at all it was so painful worse than giving birth - I think it is very hard to be a woman in africa and I understand everything these women are going through.

As a Kenyan woman, and as a public health professional, I am appalled by the rates of maternal death, or severe disability facing the thousands of women who undergo backstreet abortions every year. These women have been forced into a desperate position for reasons of poverty, lack of access to contraception, lack of power in their sexual relationships, and a society that stigmatizes single mothers. Legalising abortion is an essential step towards saving their lives - but in order to reduce the numbers of women wanting an abortion, we have to tackle the roots of the problem: we need to reduce the rates of unwanted pregnancies by empowering women in their sexual relationships, educating women, increasing access to contraception, and forcing Kenyan men to take responsibility for the children they sire.
Dina, Nairobi, Kenya

Murder is murder however way u put it and abortion is murder of the highest degree. For all those advocating abortion where would they be today if their mothers had taken the steps many years ago... We live in a morally decaying world where anything wrong is considered right and anything right considered wrong all in the name of going with the times and aping anything and everything that comes from the West. How one brings up their own children plays a big part in reducing the number of premarital sex which in turn leads to early pregnancies.
Emma, Nairobi

Ollala Muritsi Kusinyo, Busia, Kenya

In the summer of 2006 I worked as a volunteer researcher and Nurse's Aid at a hospital in Western Uganda. Among many painful experiences I remember most several women who came in to our emergency clinic raped and beaten. After admitting one of these women I remember a nurse commenting on how young girls would consume a specific plant found in the bush which would cause them to have violent abortions. A great percentage of these young girls and women die as a consequence of this plant and attempted abortion. I don't know how true the nurse's information is but the underlying issue is what concerns me most. I believe, as a woman that I have a natural right to control my reproductive future. All women must have this right. Abortion is a controversial issue in most all countries around the world. There are many factors playing into the abortion issue. Where there is proper sex education (not abstinence only education), contraceptive resources, and the appropriate support for women, I believe there will be less incidence of abortion legal or illegal.
Allie Buti, Portland, Oregon, USA

Abortion is happening now and will continue to happen if all we do is preach and penalise it. We must talk about real alternatives and good laws. Laws punishing traumatised women and girls have no further function than further humiliation of victims. And laws permitting fathers to run away from responsibility for their children(and kenyan legislators have ensured this in all the years of our independence) only add fuel to the abortion mill.
Achola, Nairobi ,kenya

I recently visited the capital of Kenya for two and a half weeks. During my visit, I spent time in the slum of Mathare. There, my team and I helped to clean out a sewage drain and rake up piles of trash behind a community centre. I later learned that the whole time, our Kenyan coordinator was praying that we would not encounter a foetus in a plastic bag because the area we were cleaning up was the local dumping spot for illegally aborted babies. I was horrified. The issue is not one of pro-life versus pro-choice. It is an issue of providing women the resources to know their reproductive rights and to be able to provide for a family if they do get pregnant. While I don't advocate for abortion in general, the ravages that illegal abortions are wrecking on the poorest communities of Kenya should not be tolerated.
Kate, Steamboat Springs USA

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