Is Kenya About to Trample Female Reproductive Rights?
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If western media is your sole news source, you’re likely to view the African women’s rights struggle as a one issue affair: female genital mutilation. But the battle over reproductive rights in Africa is just as fraught -- enmeshed in issues far thornier than the question of Super Bowl TV ads that has lately transfixed Americans on both sides of the abortion debate.
Take Kenya. For twenty years, Kenyans have been working fitfully to revise their constitution and are now mere weeks away from possibly finalizing the document. But this milestone in the nation’s slow move towards real democracy may be marred by another human rights calamity. If the constitution is approved in its current form by the Kenyan Parliament sometime this year, Kenya will join the inglorious ranks of three nations -- Northern Mariana Islands, Uganda, and Zambia -- that have prohibited abortion within their constitution.
The most recent draft of the constitution had solid human rights protections for women. However, a review by a parliamentary commission resulted in the evisceration of many of the core democratic constitutional provisions. This included amending Article 25, which in its original language guaranteed that "Every individual has the right to life" (emphasis added).
The wording choice for Article 25 is hardly revolutionary. In fact, it reflects the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is consistent with the majority of national constitutions in the world. But conservative religious groups are not partial to international legal precedence and many lobbied Kenyan parliamentarians to amend Article 25. Which they did, and then some.
Article 25 still protects life, but life is now defined as beginning at conception. Moreover, Article 25 also outlaws abortion. Phrases in the draft guaranteeing the right to health care, including reproductive health care, and that no one may be refused emergency medical treatment (say, for an unsafe abortion) were also eliminated from the draft text.
The problem with protecting life at any stage before birth in a constitution is it may hinder women’s access to abortion, even when her life is at risk. It could also limit a woman's ability to use certain contraceptives, like IUDs or emergency contraceptives, as their mechanisms could be interpreted as interfering with life, as defined by religious groups. Lastly, a constitution is not a place to regulate medical procedures, nor are religious groups the authorities to dictate this.
It should be noted that abortion is already illegal in Kenya except to save a woman’s life. It can only take place in a hospital, with two medical practitioners certifying that the procedure is necessary. Notwithstanding its illegality, abortions -- most of them unsafe -- still occur at high rates. It is estimated that as many as 300,000 abortions take place annually. Of these, 20,000 women are hospitalized with abortion-related complications. The original draft constitution would change none of this.
Kenya isn't the only country debating when life begins. Last year, amidst a fraught public debate that pitted the Catholic Church against women's rights and human rights groups, the Dominican Republic approved their new constitution, with language specifying that life was protected from conception. In Mexico, in the last two years, 17 states have amended their state constitutions to protect life from conception. All of which suggests a worrying trend where governments are willing to forsake women's rights rather than face down religious interests.
The agitation over the Super Bowl abortion ads maybe not be so far removed from the Kenyan question after all. One of the U.S. groups involved in past Kenyan anti-abortion efforts are the folks who brought you Tim Tebow’s pro-life message, Focus on the Family.