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NGIGI: Power to terminate pregnancy key to woman’s right to health

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By ANN NGIGI
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Kenya should focus on the well-being and safety of its women. Women’s sexual and reproductive rights need recognition and active reinforcement, and safe and legal abortion is a positive step in that direction.

Abortions are not permitted in Kenya unless, in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is a need for emergency treatment or the life or health of the mother is in danger.

Centre for Reproductive Rights (Kenya) reported that, every year, at least 2,600 women in the country die from unsafe abortion, while 21,000 more are hospitalised with complications from incomplete and unsafe abortion, whether spontaneous or induced.

As grim as these figures are, they do not capture the numbers of women killed or disabled by unsafe abortions who never visit a health facility or whose cause of death is not recorded.

The World health Organization (WHO) says a woman dies in a developing country every eight minutes because of complications arising from unsafe abortions.

Enacting laws and policies that allow and ensure access to safe and legal abortion is, arguably, one of the most significant steps in respecting the rights of women to choice and bodily integrity.

Abortion falls under the realm of personal liberty which the government may not enter. The right to health, as provided in the Constitution, includes the right to control one’s health and body — including sexual and reproductive freedom — and the right to be free from interference. That takes into consideration such factors as a woman’s health (physical and psychological), economic situation, relationships and timing and spacing of children.

If a woman chooses to abort, she should not undergo life-threatening clandestine procedures. Laws that restrict and criminalise abortion invade a right, said to be possessed by the pregnant woman, to choose to terminate her pregnancy.

Denying women access to abortion should be considered a form of gender discrimination. Placing restrictive measures which force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term or undergo unsafe and illegal abortions that place their health and lives in danger constitute cruel and inhuman treatment.

Regulating abortion might be sufficiently important to be constitutional but the law should aim at protecting and respecting an individual’s ‘zone of privacy’ against State laws, and that zone is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.

Debates on whether to allow safe and legal abortions have centred on three justifications: A social concern to discourage illicit sexual conduct, protecting the health of women and protecting prenatal life. We must now reject the first two, considering modern gender roles and medical technology. And the third does not hold water because, even though some people regard foetuses as people deserving full rights, no consensus exists on that.

Objecting to provision of voluntary abortion services, whether on religious or moral grounds, is a chief barrier to safe abortions and endangers the lives of women. It is, therefore, important that the government comes up with strategies to offer information and encourage community participation in matters abortion.

It should enact a statute that determines the circumstances and conditions in which the pregnancy may be terminated, fund registered legal abortion clinics and recruit healthcare providers who do not object to performing abortion and qualify their premise with their right to belief systems.

Political discussions on abortion need not take place in the context of having restrictive legislation and high levels of unsafe practices.



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