Making abortion cool again

Early this week, the Daily Nation published an article titled “Study reveals over 500,000 abortions are done yearly across the country.” I read it with a lot of interest, because I am one of those annoying nutcases who think the conversation about abortion should not be had in my absence.

However, I ran into a difficulty when I found that the study referred to is from 2013. That’s seven years ago, if you have trouble subtracting. It was based on data collected and analysed in 2012, and was conducted by the African Population and Health Research Center and the Ministry of Health, together with Ipas and the Guttmacher Institute.

Now, I understand that journalism is going to the dogs. It is lamented every day. But I still haven’t lost my ability to be shocked when I run into specific instances of the malaise. When you say, “study reveals,” you create an immediate impression in the audience that this must be a new study, with information we didn’t know already.

Nevertheless, I decided to give the writer the benefit of the doubt. So I looked for the quoted report and read it. Immediately, I ran into another hurdle. The study had a very precise number, 464,690, as the estimate of the number of induced abortions that took place in the country in 2012. Now, I am no mathematician, but 464,690 isn’t exactly “over 500,000.”

However, one cannot afford to run out of benefits of the doubt in matters of importance. My bag still had a number of such benefits, and I kindly tossed one more at the author. Another study was cited in the article. Thinking that perhaps it could explain how this magical arithmetic had been done, I opened a new Chrome tab, searched for it and read it.

It goes by the title “The Cost of Treating Unsafe Abortion Complications in Public Health Facilities in Kenya.” It was also produced by the Ministry of Health, the African Population and Health Research Center and Ipas, with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. It came out in 2018. Also a little too old for “study reveals,” but who cares.

That study found out that, as the article says, the “Kenyan government spent Sh533 million in 2016 treating post-abortion complications in public health facilities.” The figure is higher than the corresponding number for 2012, which was Sh432.7 million. This clearly shows, the author announces, “that more women procured unsafe abortions in 2016.”

No, it doesn’t. An increase of KES 100 million doesn’t imply that at all. I mean, we are in Kenya, and in Kenya people eat. That money could have easily ended up in someone’s bank account and bought his children a holiday in Dubai. Then there is this thing called inflation, which economists know more than I do, but which apparently also increases costs year over year. There is also the possibility of increased coverage of a fixed population.

This is a non-exhaustive list, and I do not claim that any of these factors is the reason for the increase in spending from 2012 to 2016. For all I care, maybe more women really did procure unsafe abortions in 2016. My point is that we cannot draw that conclusion from the quoted study. That is a problem for another study entirely to answer.

Having hit this dead end, I found myself lamenting my generous use of benefits of the doubt. Had I wasted them? If it contained such utter claptrap, why had the article been published at all? The motivation, clearly, wasn’t to inform anyone about anything. If it had been, the author could have made at least some elementary efforts to be honest.

I cannot speak for her, but it is my experience that those who speak of the high number of “unsafe abortions” want us to liberalise access to “safe abortions.” I have an issue with the terminology, because any successful abortion will be fatal to at least one human being. The distinction drawn by the World Health Organisation is terminological though. It says that an unsafe abortion is the “termination of pregnancy either by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment lacking the minimal medical standards, or both.”

Now imagine this. You live in a country where murder is illegal but people routinely kill one another. All anyone needs is to have a reason, any reason, and they may go ahead and kill the other person. However, many of them choose to use crude means, like carrying their targets on a motorcycle and crashing it into the back of a lorry. While it is likely that the target dies, it is also very risky for the person who does them in.

So, one day, some brilliant politicians and journalists come up and say, you know, too many of our people are burdening the healthcare system with the cost of treating them after they have brought someone else to an untimely end. We propose that we should legalise murder, develop methodologies for doing it, and charge it to the public purse. That way, if anyone wants to kill another person, they can just come to public health centres, and we will provide them with the necessary tools to do so, and everyone will be happy.

Now, of course, this is a morosely ridiculous idea (and a terrible analogy too). No one, in their right mind, would sign off on such a thing. But it approximates the problem at the root of this unsafe abortion versus safe abortion debate, at least as it is depicted in the media. Half a million unsafe abortions every year is too many. Let’s expand access to safe abortion so that the healthcare system is relieved of the burden.

Many reasons can be drawn up for allowing pregnant women to procure “safe” abortions. Esther Passaris, the Women Representative for Nairobi County, alluded to some when she brandished her pro-choice credentials last week. Women “should not give birth to children to suffer. They should not have children they cannot take care of […] let the women procure abortion early in pregnancy if they don’t want to have the child” she declared.

Other reasons can come to mind, like the case of women who become pregnant after rape, for whom the baby is a reminder of the trauma. Asking them to carry such a pregnancy to term, it can be said, is to pile one abuse on top of another. Yet others will say that women should be allowed to abort babies who come in the way of their academic or professional advancement, or, more seriously, of their health.

Arguments are also often had about when in pregnancy a woman should be allowed to terminate the life of her child. Should it be early, as Passaris proclaimed, or two minutes before birth? How about two weeks before birth? And how do we decide when it is right and when it is wrong? Who gets to draw the line?

The problem with all of these conversations is that they skirt the most important issue here. At what point does one become a human being and get to claim the dignity and rights that come with being human? If we can answer this question honestly, then the conversation will come one mighty step closer to a proper conclusion.

Feature image: Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash.

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  1. At what point does one become a human being and get to claim the dignity and rights that come with such a status?

    The Kenyan Constitution says and I agree… At Conception.

  2. The terminology (Successful abortion) “…any successful abortion will be fatal to at least one human being.” This part speaks it all.

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