Will Kenya’s New Constitution Protect Women’s Lives?

Wonder what happens when abortion is illegal? Then take a look at Kenya. Every year, more than 2,600 women there die from complications of unsafe abortion, accounting for 35 percent of the country’s maternal deaths. Close to 30 percent of the Kenyan women hospitalized with abortion complications suffer highly severe problems, including uterine perforation, hemorrhage, sepsis, pelvic abscess and shock.

But now, ignoring the devastating consequences of illegal abortion, Kenya’s parliament has proposed a new constitution which states that “the life of a person begins at conception.” This is the definition that anti-choice advocates in the United States lobby for, because it confers personhood rights on a fetus, thus making abortion murder.

Kenyan lawmakers have provided a loophole, though: The draft constitution also states that an abortion can be performed if a trained health professional determines that the life or health of the mother is in danger. This provision is causing hysteria among anti-choice activists in the U.S. and in Africa, according to The New York Times.

Abortion rights opponents say that it could lead to the dreaded “abortion on demand.” Abortion rights supporters say that the proposed constitution would still keep abortion illegal, and they are worried about defining life as beginning at conception.

This poses a dilemma for Kenyan women who want change in their country but have legitimate concerns.  Some would prefer that abortion not be mentioned in the constitution at all, and would prefer that parliament just legalize abortion. However, the provision allowing “trained health professionals” to recommend an abortion for the “health of the mother,” does provide some semblance of hope and will save women’s lives. So, what does this have to do with us?

The U.S. has an embassy in Kenya and has been actively encouraging the approval of a new constitution to replace the one that has been in place since the country won independence from Britain in 1964. That document  grants unchecked power to the president, and is thought to have been responsible for the violence that resulted from the disputed election in 2007. It may be time for change in Kenya–but anti-choice activists in the U.S. don’t see it that way. Seeking to impose their view of morality on the world, they are working with legislators and religious leaders to defeat the proposed constitution. Kenyan church leaders have teamed up with Jay Sekulow of the anti-choice group American Center for Law and Justice to campaign against the new constitution, and a trio of anti-choice members of Congress have joined the effort.

Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) are demanding an investigation into whether the Obama administration violated the Siljander Amendment by supporting the new Kenyan constitution. The amendment, named after former Michigan Rep. Mark Siljander, is included in the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Act each year to prohibit lobbying for or against abortion using USAID (United States Agency for International Development) funds.  I’m a Michigan native and I remember Siljander from his days as an anti-choice state representative who prided himself on his opposition to the ERA, busing and abortion. He didn’t want USAID funds to be used to save women’s lives, but in 2008 Siljander was indicted for accepting unauthorized USAID funds from a Missouri-based Islamic charity. Today he’s awaiting trial on charges of money laundering, conspiracy and obstructing justice for allegedly lying about lobbying senators on behalf of an Islamic charity that authorities said was secretly sending funds to terrorists.

We need to erase Siljander’s legacy from our foreign policy. It’s a new era now, as President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are trying to reshape America’s image around the world. The Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs should eliminate the Siljander Amendment from future appropriations. Our foreign policy should be shaped by the reality that empowering women is the key to combating global poverty, and giving women control of their reproductive lives is essential to the health and wealth of the planet. We need to encourage countries like Kenya to legalize abortion and make sure it remains legal in the U.S.

Above: a Kenyan woman. Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/novecentino/ / CC BY-SA 2.0


Not the singer/songwriter Carole King. Been a feminist for as long as I can remember and committed to reproductive rights even longer.