Kenya offers cautionary tale on abortion

Women sing at a Women’s Day Celebration in Kenya, where topics from equality, child marriage and abortion were tackled. (Photo via Flickr by bbcworldservice)

Although the November elections yielded women-friendly returns, the War on Women continues, both in the US and around the world.

In the last week alone the Michigan Congress pass a bill limiting abortions and Texas Governor Rick Perry announced his goal to eventually make “abortion, at any stage, a thing of the past.”

In the same speech, Perry said that one of his top priorities this year will be a proposed bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks.

Almost 40 years since the Roe v. Wade landmark case, Americans would do well to look past their own doorstep and consider the results of these debates worldwide.

I live in a country where abortion is mostly illegal. Since colonization, abortion in Kenya has only been legal when two doctors certify that the life of the mother is in danger.

This sounds frighteningly like what several public officials advocated for the United States during the last election.

Having spent the past two years working in women’s rights in Kenya, I’ve learned more than I’d like to know about the results of this law. Because it has been illegal for so long and is shrouded in so much stigma, statistics can be dubious. But what we do know is scary.

Kenya has one of the most restrictive laws regulating abortion in the world. Deaths from abortion related complications are also more than nine times higher than compared to the rest of the developing world.

One in fifty-five Kenyan women die from pregnancy related causes. Over one-third of these deaths are from unsafe abortion. This means that over 2,600 women die annually from unsafe abortion. Experts have estimated that the results of unsafe abortions in Kenya costs over 3 million dollars annually.

Nairobi, Kenya is home to women’s rights group like the Federation of Women’s Lawyers working toward the same level of health care access and abortion rights currently afforded to women in the U.S. (Photo via flickr by Carlos Fernandez)

These statistics confirm what “has long been established, that criminalizing or making the law on abortion restrictive doesn’t reduce the incidence of abortions… [legalizing] it will just make it safer for women to access abortion services” said Mariam Kamunyu a lawyer at FIDA-Kenya, a Kenyan women’s rights organization.

Of course, there are many reasons restrictions on abortion in Kenya and restrictions on abortion in America do not look exactly the same. As a whole, Americans enjoy wider access to healthcare, better regulation of health care providers and an overall higher standard of living. This means that the stakes in Kenya can be much greater. The parallels, however, are unsettling and much greater than we’d like to admit.

Everywhere, restrictive legislation does not reduce rates of abortion, it creates two classes of reproductive health care: one for the wealthy and one for the poor.

For Kenyan women who are able to pay, a safe abortion is not difficult to obtain under any circumstance. The right doctor will sign off that her health will be at risk and an abortion can be obtained safely and discreetly.

For low-income Kenyans, abortions are equally easy to obtain, but are of a distinctly different nature. For less than five dollars, backstreet abortions are regularly performed throughout Kenya using cringe-inducing methods that often involve bleach, coat hangers, broken glass, pens, and sticks.

Thankfully, Kenya has recently made strides towards improving the state of reproductive rights. Through hard fought battles by civil society, activists and scholars, the new constitution voted in two years ago included provisions for abortion when the life or the health of the mother is in danger.

Many lawyers have interpreted this to include the mental health of the mother. If respected, this could significantly broaden the circumstances under which a woman could obtain a legal abortion.

The law and its interpretation remain murky however, and two years later, few are certain what this will mean for Kenyan women. Even with the most liberal interpretation, safe abortions will most likely continue to be unaffordable for the majority of Kenya’s population.

As I watch Kenyan men and women continue fighting hard and making great strides to expand and improve reproductive rights, I only hope that someday I’ll be able to say the same for my own country.

At the very least, before American legislators continue experimenting with abortion laws, they would be wise to turn their eyes abroad and consider how well it has worked in the rest of the world.


  1. Abby-
    Saw your post on fb and came over here to learn more. It’s so cool to see what you’re up to post-Bryn Mawr! Rock on girl- and keep making people think and inspiring change.

  2. Abby, Your character, composure, focus and courage, has earned you this success and glory. Congratulations and let the spirit never fade away. Have seen your posts i tel u am amazed. You truly deserve the success, and with such efforts am sure you will earn more. Keep up the good work.

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