The controversial Reproductive Health Bill 2019 that is championed by Nakuru Senator Susan Kihika stirred national debate from the day it was made public. The heat seems not to be letting up.
A bill that contains provisions for access to family planning among adolescents, assisted reproduction, safe motherhood and adolescent friendly reproductive health service has given several MPs, senators, religious leaders, and reproductive health stakeholders like NGOs sleepless nights for months.
The Bill is headed for the third reading at the Senate and as of last week, religious leaders were still up in arms over some of the key sections and articles of the bill. The bone of contention in the bill are parts 5&7. These two address termination of pregnancy and also tackle the matter of reproductive health among adolescents. They also outline the circumstances under which a pregnancy may be terminated by a trained health professional.
Kihika’s bill gained traction during a public hearing session held by a bicameral sitting in parliament. Health practitioners, civil society groups and women parliamentarians including Millie Odhiambo, Esther Passaris, Millicent Omanga, Gertrude Musuruve were among the strongest supporters of the bill.
Though abortion is a contentious matter in Kenya, the proponents maintain that it is time to bring the uncomfortable subject to the table. While offering his support for the bill, Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata proposed amendments to article 26 that would improve the emotive bill to avoid ambiguity and make it clear that the plan is not to introduce abortion through the back door.
In an interview with Milele FM, Susan Kihika said that the bill is clean and is not an abortion bill.
“The bill will improve reproductive health Services, help women who cannot hold a pregnancy through in Vitro fertilization ( IVF) and surrogate mothers and provide a legal framework to actualize article 43 of the Kenyan constitution which guarantees every person the right to the highest attainable standard of health, including reproductive healthcare.”Nakuru Senator Susan Kihika.
Reuters (the news agency) reports that almost half a million abortions were conducted in Kenya in 2012 – the most recent data available – with one in four women and girls suffering complications such as high fever, sepsis, shock and organ failure, according to health ministry data.
According to Citizen TV, unsafe abortions account for 35 percent of maternal deaths in Kenya, much higher than the global average of 13 percent. About 266 women die per 100,000 unsafe abortions in Kenya – higher than rates in other East African nations.
On the other side of the debate, religious groups, civil societies and human rights activists have had a fight with the contents of the bill. They have come out, now and them, to express their reservations about the bill and went as far as urging the Senate to oppose it in its entirety.
Kefa Omae, Chairman of the evangelical Alliance of Kenya, said,
“It is clear that the bill legalizes the killing of disabled and mentally retarded persons in their preborn stages of life. It tells children between the ages of 10-17 years that they should receive contraceptives and practice safe abortion which is like teaching that sex is for pleasure. If we allow sexual pleasure to be taught as a right, what happens when one wants the pleasure and there is no consent of the opposite sex?” he asked. “This will lead to perversion and they will engage in masturbation, same sex relationships, rape, bestiality, incest teenage sex and increase the demand for abortion,” he explained.
From March this year, when the country was put on Covid-19 restrictions, which included the closure of schools, reports indicate that the number of unplanned pregnancies among teens have gone up. In fact, it was widely reported that over 4,000 girls under the age of 19 got pregnant in about 4 months- the partial lock-down months.
Charles Kanjama, a lawyer, insists that parts of the provisions in the bill are problematic and dangerous if approved into law. He says the bill needs orientation to be family friendly. He said the bill did not take into account the consent of the adolescents and contradicts constitution on the basis of the fundamental right to life.
Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya (FIDA) deputy executive director Wanjiru Kamada said the bill will ensure teenagers get correct information and not rely on peers and the internet. She added that lack of legislation hinders the realization of these rights.
“There are social cultural issues that hinder the enjoyment of sexual reproductive health rights,” she said.
Human Rights activist D. Otieno suggests that if the bill passes into law it will be sole grounds for termination of pregnancies. “The introduction into law of the controversial bill presents a slippery slope that will destroy the moral fabric of the society,” he added.
This far, the bill presents the best shot at resolving sexual and reproductive health issues of adolescents.