NAIROBI (TrustLaw) –A leading Kenya doctor has urged the government to make abortions more widely available and accused the church of massive hypocrisy, saying some clergy who denounce it as a sin have procured terminations for women they have made pregnant.
Joseph Karanja, one of the few gynaecologists in Kenya willing to speak out in favour of abortion, also said women who sought terminations were treated worse than violent criminals. In some cases they were left to bleed to death in police cells.
Abortion is rarely provided in public hospitals in Kenya, except in cases where the mother's health is in danger.
The penal code says that women who abort illegally can be jailed for seven years.
Many women resort to backstreet quacks or try to end the pregnancy themselves. Thousands of women die every year as a result.
“Danger to health is very easy to justify for almost any woman,” said Karanja, who treats post-abortion complications at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi. “If you refuse (abortion) services, she goes backstreet. She comes back either dying or you save her at a lot of cost. We can predict what will happen.”
Some view abortion as a social and religious problem, but not as a medical issue, he said.
“But they should deal with the problem before it occurs. They should apply the morality, the religion, to prevent the occurrence of the problem,” he added. “Once the pregnancy has occurred, they have failed. They should let medicine take over.”
The government has estimated 800 backstreet terminations are carried out every day, often with bicycle spokes, knitting needles, sticks and pens. Other methods include drinking detergent or overdosing on malaria pills.
Karanja, who has seen many women die from botched abortions, said it was time the church and government stopped moralising and did more to tackle Kenya’s high rate of unwanted pregnancies.
The church should focus on teaching abstinence before marriage and people should be taught that they can use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy, he added.
“But even with that in place, you will not prevent 100 percent of the pregnancies,” Karanja said.
“There are a few that will still occur because people are raped, people are coerced. So you have to make provision for that. You have to give women options.”
Karanja, who performs abortions at his private clinic, called for the government to make the service more widely available at public health facilities.
He described the women seeking abortions as “ordinary women, upright women, church women”, adding that he had even come across members of the clergy seeking help for women they had impregnated.
Karanja said many women died at home after botched procedures because they were too afraid to ask for help in case they were arrested.
In some cases women have died in police custody after being arrested.
“A few months ago we had a report from Muranga (in Central Province). The woman was locked in the cell. Next day, she was dead. That’s not where you put a sick person,” Karanja said.
“We don’t see them arresting rapists, arresting drunkards (who impregnate the women). So why are they arresting this unfortunate woman? They should take her to the hospital.”
He lamented that criminals who have been shot get better care than women who have sought abortions.
“Even the criminals are brought to (hospital),” he said.
“You are locking up this woman to die and you are taking very good care of a criminal who has already killed some innocent person on the street. That doesn’t look right, even before God. What justice is that? What morality is that?”
Kenya is a deeply religious country and the church is vocal in its condemnation of abortion.
But Karanja, a churchgoer for 50 years, said some clergy do not practise what they preach.
“They manifest holiness to the people around them but when the problem involves them personally, they don’t behave any different from other people. It’s very hypocritical.Is termination of pregnancy more immoral than having sex with a girl in your congregation?” he said.
“Is it ok that you have sex, whether you are married or not, provided you don’t use contraception, or a condom, and providing if you get pregnant you don’t terminate that pregnancy? Is that the morality? That is the message they give to the people.”
Doctors also accuse politicians of being too scared of the church to publicly speak out in favour of the liberalisation of abortion services, as provided for in the new 2010 constitution.
“For a person like (Kenyan President Mwai) Kibaki, if he openly supported abortion, at the back of his mind, he’d know that ‘if I support abortion, the majority of Christians would not support me,’” said a doctor who performs abortions at a Marie Stopes clinic.“There’s politics every time.”
Without clearer guidelines on what is and is not legal, gynaecologists said a two-tier system will remain with the rich accessing safe abortions while the poor die from backstreet methods.
The Marie Stopes doctor said he had carried out abortions for the police.
“Two days ago, there were two policewomen, they came here for these services,” he said on condition of anonymity.
“There is another guy, a traffic policeman… He brought the wife and it was done.”
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)