Marie Stopes International is no stranger to readers of these pages. But what has happened to it in Kenya certainly qualifies for strangeness. On 14th November, after holding an inquiry, the Kenyan Medical Practitioners and Dentist’s Board (KMPDB) ordered the organisation to “cease and desist offering any form of abortion services” in the country.
The order came after a complaint against the organisation, raised by the public advocacy group CitizenGO and signed by over 5000 people, was submitted to the Cabinet Secretary for health. The subsequent public inquiry drew submissions from several parties, including the films classification board, which had issues with the organisation’s advertisements.
Marie Stopes International (operating under the name of Marie Stopes Kenya) has operated in Kenya since 1985. It proudly claims on its website that it “has since become the country’s largest sexual and reproductive health organisation.” As we all know, this, in modern-speak, means that it has become the largest abortion provider in the country.
How do we know this? After all, MSI states that it only offers abortion in countries where the law allows it, and in Kenya the law does not allow it, so we should logically conclude that it does not offer abortion here. Moreover, it also claims, on its website, to have averted 208,979 unsafe abortions in Kenya in 2017; it says nothing of having offered any actual abortion services.
But the same website boldly states that it does not “shy away from delivering services like safe abortion” and that abortion is “at the core” of its mission. Moreover, the organisation was brought before the KMPDB precisely for advertising its abortion services on mass media, clearly targeting young people by claiming that they “had a solution” for girls who found themselves pregnant without wanting it. They made no secret of this.
I called MSI before the public inquiry, using its listed contact, under a pseudonym, and claimed that my girlfriend and I had made a mistake and needed help. Without my specifying exactly what form of help I needed, “termination” was helpfully proffered, and my girlfriend and I got an appointment for the next day.
What, someone may ask, is wrong with offering abortions (I refuse to qualify it as safe or unsafe, since every successful abortion kills at least one person) in Kenya? Is it not true that Kenyan women want free access to abortion, just like women from the rest of the world? Isn’t Marie Stopes International aware of an “unmet need” for abortion across Kenya and the rest of Africa?
Here, again, we run into headwinds. If it is a matter of the will of the people, the numbers confound us. Survey after survey, done by Western organisations no less, show that Africans overwhelmingly oppose abortion. In Kenya, 87% of the people (certainly including most women) are against it. And Kenya, dear readers, is rather liberal compared to the rest of the continent. I know because I live here, in its throbbing capital.
What about the law? Well, the Kenyan constitution is quite delicate about it. It does not allow abortion 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.” For reference, when I got an appointment with MSI for an abortion, my imaginary girlfriend’s life was in no danger whatsoever. “We” just needed help.
As for the “any other written law” mentioned by the constitution, the Penal Code of Kenya, in articles 158 to160, 228 and 240, expressly forbids abortion, threatening the worst offenders with life in prison. In short, abortion is illegal in Kenya. There is no legal wiggle-room. That notwithstanding, Marie Stopes Kenya felt itself justified to not just offer abortion here, but also to advertise it. Against the will of the people of Kenya and against their laws.
Of course it matters that the money it used to fund its activities was given by the British people, through DFID, to support development; they will be right to push for an investigation into the use to which their money was put, although I do not hope for much from their government.
However, I do expect more from our own government, and all Kenyans who oppose abortion should be asking themselves why this organisation has been allowed to operate at all in our country, flouting the law with impunity for three decades under the lying banner of “reproductive health”. This also should be investigated.
There are two kinds of invaders. The first kind does not know that it is an invader. The second kind knows it is an invader, but goes ahead to invade nonetheless. Of the first kind, only microbes and wildlife come to mind, like bacteria in the human body or African hippopotamuses in Colombia. Marie Stopes Kenya is of the second kind. The normal thing is to fight off invaders of both kinds with a severity proportionate to their effect.
The KMPDB’s directive came not a day too soon. To ensure compliance, the board asked the organisation to review its guidelines to conform to the law, to stop advertising abortion (and anything else for that matter), and to submit weekly reports for 60 days to satisfy the board of its compliance. MSI was given six months to get back in line, failure to which the board would take unspecified action against it.
But I wish it went further. It is time to admit that the organisation has overstayed its welcome. Asking it to stop offering abortion services in the country is tantamount to asking it to stop operating completely, since it does little else. The government should just go ahead to shut it down and ship it out. We have had enough of the invasion.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya