News and Events

Mock Tribunal on Abortion, Nairobi 26 June 2007

by Jo Crichton (African Population and Health Research Center)


Today, I attended a Mock Tribunal on abortion organised by the Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC), in partnership with the Reproductive Health and Rights Alliance (RHRA), Kenya. I’m writing a quick note on it, because it was an interesting meeting displaying some of the extremes of opposition to abortion, and also highlighting that there are moderate voices for and against the liberalisation of abortion. The moderate voices on both sides were similar in composition – they were all legal and health professionals or NGO representatives. This group is a narrow spectrum of Kenyan society, but could be influential, and there appears to be considerable room for dialogue within the group. At the meeting, an Assistant Minister for Health expressed concern about unsafe abortion and called for the need to ‘think outside the box’ in how to address the problem, which seemed to be a good sign about the climate within the government.


The Mock Tribunal aimed to publicise the negative consequences of the criminalisation of abortion in Kenya. The programme included testimonies from four women who have undergone unsafe abortion and from doctors and nurses, plenary discussion and reactions from three rights experts acting as ‘Judges’. The organisers had initially planned for the four women to testify in person at the tribunal, but threats to the organisers in the run up to the event prompted a change of plan and recorded testimonies were played instead.

At one point, the meeting became chaotic and heated, with an anti-abortion gynaecologist shouting over one of the testimonies, attempting to disrupt the meeting. He was joined by around 6 anti-abortion activists from the audience shouting and, holding up banners saying ‘this is a foreign agenda’, and invading the stage and shoving the organisers. There was complete chaos with lots of people shouting at once, audience members leaving their seats in alarm and bouncers eventually escorting the ringleader out of the room. It took about 15 minutes to restore order and return to the programme. The saboteurs did not stay to make any arguments explaining their opposition – they left as soon as order was restored.


The Assistant Minister for Health, Dr. Kibunguchy, gave a progressive speech citing statistics on the magnitude and consequences of unsafe abortion, stressing the seriousness of the problem, the role of unmet need for FP and sexual violence, and highlighting the government’s lack of clarity on the issue in laws and guidelines. He argued that the low doctor/population ratio means that many women are not able to access abortion in circumstances where it would be legal according to Kenyan law. He argued that abortion is not a black or white issue and that we need to strike a balance between the two standpoints and ‘think outside the box’. The solutions he recommended from the government were, however, within the box – focusing on prevention of unwanted pregnancy and improving provision of post-abortion care.


After the disruption was resolved, the audience involvement was moderate in tone and many eloquent points were made. One participant called the tribunal the first sober public discussion in Kenya on abortion. Proponents of the liberalisation of abortion law included nurses and gynaecologists who have had to deal with the consequences of unsafe abortion, and representatives from rights and SRH NGOs. The most commonly used arguments included public health, explanations of the social, political and economic causes of unsafe abortion, and descriptions of the suffering caused by complications from unsafe abortion. Arguments included the culpability of government and society and the role of poverty and gender and income inequality in causing unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortion. One person mentioned the MDGs. Some people argued that opposition to abortion is motivated by patriarchal interests.


Participants opposed to or concerned about any liberalisation of abortion law included gynaecologists, lawyers, representatives from Christian crisis pregnancy organisations and the Christian Medical Fellowship and Dean of the School of Medicine. Arguments included the concern that abortion damages women psychologically, prevention of unwanted pregnancies by information and FP services is a better approach, abortion is the murder of children who have no voice, and abortion is against Christian and moral values. Two people claimed that even safe abortion can lead to health problems.


The ‘judges’ traced some of the rights violations involved in the prohibition of abortion. They will make a public statement after discussing the evidence presented at the meeting.


The meeting was reported on in the Daily Nation and the Standard today and on KTN TV news last night and this morning. The newspaper reporting was generally balanced, presenting both sides and including detailed statistics on the health consequences of unsafe abortion. The TV reports focused on the disruption of the meeting by anti-abortion activists, but also aired interviews with people with various perspectives, including the gynaecologist who had disrupted the meeting.


Note on the Reproductive Health and Rights Alliance (RHRA), Kenya

The RHRA was formed in July 2004 as a coalition of individuals and organisations advocating for the creation of a legal, political and social environment that supports sexual and reproductive health and rights, including safe abortion, in Kenya. It is coordinated by PPFA. Member organisations of RHRA are: Africa Woman, Centre for the Study of Adolescents, Coalition on Violence Against Women, Family Heath Options Kenya, FIDA-Kenya, IPPF Africa Regional Office, Kenya Human Rights Commission, Kenya Medical Association, Kenya Obstetrics and Gynaecological Society, National Nurses Association of Kenya, PPFA, individual activists, and representatives from law firms.