Source: Daily Nation
By TOM ODHIAMBO email@example.com
Posted Friday, August 26 2011 at 22:34
It is interesting to note that since the enactment of the new Constitution on August 27 last year, there has been a deafening silence over the “contentious issues” that had threatened to derail the whole process.
No one seems bothered anymore about the question of ‘abortion’, for instance.
Yet this one issue was marked throughout the process of writing and debating the Constitution as the most polarising, pitting those opposed to the inclusion of a clause that would make abortion legal and those who thought it should be possible to legally procure abortion.
Dr Joachim Osur reminds Kenyans as they celebrate the first anniversary of the Constitution about this emotive subject in his book The Great Controversy: A Story of Abortion, the Church and Constitution-Making in Kenya (2011).
The Great Controversy is the story of the intrigues and dramatics that surrounded the question of whether to or not to include a section in the Supreme Law that would empower medical personnel to perform an abortion, should it be deemed medically necessary.
This controversy had individuals and organisations opposed to abortion, in any form, on one side led by the Church.
On the other were human rights activists, gender rights activists and medical doctors.
The Church’s position was simply that life begins at conception and termination is murder.
This was a religious and moral argument that tended to close the debate since it pointed at the sanctity of human life.
According to Dr Osur, the counter-argument acknowledged the value of life, for indeed medical doctors are trained primarily to preserve human life, but it sought to highlight the fact that hundreds of women die every year after procuring unsafe abortions.
Besides, Dr Osur notes, “we were especially concerned about one type of abortion: spontaneous abortion, or in common language, a miscarriage. One third of all pregnancies end up in miscarriages.”
Indeed Dr Osur’s intention in The Great Controversy seems not to be about reopening the debate about the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of legalising abortion.
In fact, the title of the text may be misleading because as he shows in the rest of the book, the controversy tended to be lost in emotions.
I think what this book is about is why the country needs to seriously debate matters of national importance.
This debate was about the values we attach to life, whether one is a priest, a medical doctor or just an ordinary citizen. Generally, any human being will innately sympathise with the suffering of another.
And the debate about abortion is about the suffering one a person — the woman who is carrying a foetus and who may be haunted by the spectre of giving birth to a child resulting from multiple rapes; a woman who may wish for the child but the pregnancy is unfortunately an ectopic one; or a girl who falls pregnant when her body is still unable to carry the pregnancy to maturity and who therefore is endangering her life if she attempts to give birth, among other cases. Dr Osur gives these examples to support his argument for safe and legal abortion.
The Great Controversy is about the personal experiences of a young doctor, born in a strong Christian family, and who still confesses to his Christian convictions, but who is also professionally confronted all the time by acute cases of medical emergency.
What to do in a case where it is either losing the mother and the pregnancy or losing the pregnancy and saving the mother
The author points out that even if doctors choose to decline terminating the pregnancy, many of the women will attempt to do it illegally and often come back with emergencies.
He doesn’t either pursue the position that women rights activists tend to push: that it is the woman’s choice to keep or terminate a pregnancy.
He sticks to the morally forceful line that there are medically-mitigating circumstances to terminate.
There are those who will not like his point of view. But it is not easy to dismiss his arguments, which are sober reflections on how Kenyans stood to lose the opportunity to design and re-sign a covenant between themselves about how to live together.
A constitution is not really an agreement between the governed and the governing prescribing to the latter on how to run the affairs of the State, the way political theorists tend to put it.
The constitution is about how citizens should relate to each other every day.
This is why it is also known as the Supreme Law of the land. And it is this acknowledgement of the inevitability of co-existence that led many of the individuals who were opposed to the new Constitution to declare that they would vote ‘NO’ but they would ‘respect the verdict of Kenyans.’
This book is a significant contribution to the history of the (re-)making of Kenya. We are a society that is often afraid to publicly confront thorny issues such as landlessness, nepotism, xenophobia, gender inequality, among others.
We may speak of these matters now and then at some public forum or in our homes but we also need to produce archives for future reference such as The Great Controversy: A Story of Abortion, the Church and Constitution-Making in Kenya.
The reviewer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi