“Abortion is a direct product of poverty; social and economic insecurity.”
The status quo.
Every year, according to WHO, a staggering 21.6 million women procure illegal abortions. A good majority of them (that’s 18.5 million women) are reported to come from developing countries. Looking at these figures this is what can be construed; 47,000 women die annually from these illegal abortions because more often than not, and this should come as no surprise, the procedures are unsafe.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information in 2012 conducted a cross-sectional study on abortions in Kenya specifically, and their findings were just as grave.
In Kenya, about 49% of the recorded pregnancies are unintended/unwanted, of these, 41% are aborted. This translates to about 310,000 abortions being performed every year.
We have a glaring problem, because despite the laws in place to stop abortions, the numbers are in fact only rising.
Abortion Laws in Kenya
Abortion is outlawed by the supreme constitution of Kenya.
Article 26, subsection 4 provides that –Abortion is not permitted unless, in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is need for emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger, or if permitted by any other written law.
This is preceded by subsection 2 of the same article which states that –The life of a person begins at conception.
The role of economics vs criminalization
So this is the situation we are faced with as a country: we have strict laws that criminalize abortions yet we still have high abortion rates. Why aren’t the laws in place deterring abortions? This is the question I seek to answer in this write up.
In any conversation on abortions people obsess over the question of legality, with pro-lifers on one end of the spectrum championing for its criminalization and pro-choicers on the other championing for the woman’s right to chose ‘what to do with her body’.
But one thing that I think is consistent whichever side of the debate you fall, is the fact that we all want to see a reduction in the number of abortions.
If we’re serious about reducing abortion, we have to change the conversation.
The most important issue is beyond the legality. The most important question and ironically the one that is ignored by both the Kenyan people and its government is the economic question. It is a discernible fact that societies that do the least to support mothers and child-bearing have more abortions.
If we want to reduce abortions, we must first ask ourselves; Why do women procure abortions?
Abortion is a direct product of poverty; social and economic insecurity.
A woman who enjoys the most emotional and financial security and who has chosen the timing of her pregnancy will not choose abortion, even when abortion is legal.
A woman who is dominated, who is poor and who fears bearing the child is likely to procure an abortion, even where abortion is illegal and even where the procedure puts her life at risk.
The Netherlands has one of the the most liberal abortion laws in the world. Today the Netherlands reports one of the world’s lowest abortion rates annually.
However, in 1996 to 2003 there was a shift in that incidence, the abortion rate in the Netherlands increased by 31% in those seven years.
The first question; What changed to cause that sudden increase?
The Guttmacher Institute, the leading source of data on global reproductive health, cited that in these years well over 50% of the abortions were performed on immigrant women.
The second question; Why did immigrant women procure more abortions than dutch women?
These women chose abortions because they had become sexually active in a male-dominated culture. Although they lived in the Netherlands they did not enjoy the social and economic security that dutch women enjoy. They lived in homes and communities where access to birth control was restricted, female sexuality was policed, and where pregnancies out of wedlock were a disgrace.
Furthermore, in these cultures the costs and obligations of childbearing landed almost entirely on the women alone.
For a majority of Kenyan women, the circumstances of these immigrant women are their reality. Throughout the country especially in rural areas, there is limited access to birth control and even where it is available, it is expensive and women are expected to bear the costs alone.
Apart from the financial burden women face in accessing and acquiring contraception, many Kenyan women face further social impediments; poor sex education and stigma. In a study done on women in Baba Dogo slum Nairobi and the Chwele slum in Bungoma by Kamau RK et al on the Barriers to contraceptive use in Kenya, it was discovered that even where there is access to contraception, women do not use these mainly because of two things; the misconceptions surrounding the side effects of contraception and the misogynistic male attitudes of their husbands who see contraception as a threat to their matrimonial role as the decision maker of the household.
Many Kenyan women especially single mothers, mainly in impoverished areas are also burdened with almost all of the costs and obligations of childbearing.
Up until May 2016, Kenyan women could not include the name of their child’s biological father, without his consent, if the child was born out of wedlock. This meant that it would be very difficult for these women to legally seek child support because they wouldn’t even have the most basic document to establish a parent-child relationship between the father and the child. This meant that single mothers were entirely burdened with the financial responsibilities of raising their children while their fathers faced minimal to no consequences.
In May 2016, a landmark ruling by Hon Lady Justice Mumbi Ngugi, overturned this patriarchal law, stating that all birth records will have a mandatory inclusion of the father’s name, even when the child is born out of wedlock.
However, even now with the laws in place, women are still bound by their social and economic insecurity such that they can hardly ever access, let alone recieve such justice.
The Germany example
Germany operates perhaps the world’s plushest welfare state. Women enjoy 14 weeks of paid maternity leave. The state pays a child allowance to the parents of every German child for as many as 25 years, depending on how long as the child remains in school. Women who leave the work force after giving birth receive a replacement wage from the state for up to 14 months.
Maybe not coincidentally, Germany has one of the lowest abortion rates.
Now while I am aware that Germany and Kenya cannot be compared, Germany being an economic giant vis a vis Kenya which is still a developing nation, the example of Germany is purposely to serve as a real time illustration that there is actually a direct correlation with socio-economic security and a reduction in abortion rates, that we must not continue to ignore.
A tenable suggestion for the way forward
The law makers in Kenya tend to respond to social problems by criminalizing them and then pretending they do not exist. Criminalizing abortion has not worked. If it was truly ‘deterring’ women from procuring abortions, the statistics would read different. But they do not.
Perhaps instead of just criminalizing abortion and then sweeping the entire issue under the rug, our law makers should first address the question; Why do Kenyan women choose abortion? Those are the questions that make the difference. It’s amazing how little we talk about them.
The government instead of focusing only on the illegality of abortion, should also provide women with an option that is better than abortion.
A big part of the reason why abortion rates are so high in Kenya, and the developing world, is the fact that contraception, sex education, and other family-planning services are scarce and hard to obtain. It’s simple: where there’s little contraception, there are more unintended pregnancies; where there are more unintended pregnancies, there are more abortions. Even for those women who don’t procure illegal abortions, carrying unplanned pregnancies to term may condemn them to a cycle of poverty.
Rather than creating laws that just ban abortions, the law makers (our Mps) should create laws that support happy and healthy childbearing, to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the socio-economic stresses on mothers to be.