The Impact of Legal Ambiguity on Abortion in Kenya

Abortion is a deeply complex and stigmatized issue in Kenya, with legal ambiguity pushing many women to turn to backstreet clinics for unsafe procedures. The penal code, derived from the colonial era, criminalizes abortion, punishing the woman, the performer of the abortion, and the supplier of the materials. However, the 2010 constitution allows for abortion under specific circumstances, such as when the life or health of the mother is at risk or when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. Despite these exceptions, the lack of clarity and guidelines surrounding abortion makes it difficult for women to access safe and legal services, particularly in public health facilities.

The consequences of this legal uncertainty are severe. Women in Kenya are resorting to unsafe abortions, often conducted by untrained individuals in unregulated clinics. As a result, the country sees a high number of women and girls dying every day due to complications from unsafe procedures, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. Thousands more end up hospitalized due to the health problems caused by unsafe abortions.

The situation is exacerbated by the reluctance of doctors to openly discuss and provide legal abortions. High-profile arrests and media sensationalism have created a hostile environment for health workers, leading to a decline in the availability of safe termination services. Poor women are the most affected, as safe abortions are rarely accessible in public hospitals. Consequently, women turn to backstreet clinics, where they face health risks and possible complications arising from improper procedures.

The debate surrounding abortion in Kenya has also been influenced by anti-abortion campaigners, many of whom receive support from the United States’ anti-abortion lobby. These groups argue that abortion is unequivocally illegal, rejecting any amendments that would remove the crime of abortion from the penal code. Their stance is staunchly opposed by politicians and activists advocating for improved sexual health education, family planning access, and the emotional and economic well-being of women. These proponents argue that the fear and stigma surrounding abortion hinder women’s access to necessary health services, particularly for those from marginalized communities.

In March 2022, Kenya’s High Court affirmed abortion as a fundamental right under the constitution and declared arbitrary arrests illegal. However, while this ruling provides some legal protection for women seeking abortions, it has not fully addressed the widespread fears and challenges faced by many, such as Edith, a woman who recently underwent a secret abortion. Her experience exemplifies the pain, isolation, and uncertainty that many women endure when forced to resort to unsafe procedures.

To address the critical issue of unsafe abortions in Kenya, there is an urgent need for clear guidelines, comprehensive sexual health education, and increased access to safe and legal abortion services. These measures can help protect the lives and well-being of women and girls, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Additionally, efforts should be made to challenge the stigma surrounding abortion and promote open dialogue to foster understanding and empathy. Only by addressing these pressing issues can Kenya ensure the safety and health of its women and affirm their reproductive rights.