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Our wish for President Obama in Kenya

This week, Kenyans are looking forward to the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama, perhaps nowhere more so than in Kisumu, the city in Western Kenya closest to the home of his father.

Sadly, Kisumu is not on the president’s agenda.  Also not on his agenda is another important item—the opportunity to learn more about an urgent issue of health and human rights for women in Kenya, unsafe abortion.

{mosads}In 2010, Kenyans voted for a new constitution that legalized abortion, if, “…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.” Despite this constitutional provision, unsafe abortion remains a major cause of maternal death and injury in Kenya, forcing 120,000 women to seek treatment for complications. And because of the stigma around abortion, there are untold numbers who will not seek treatment.

We applaud the commitment to social justice and human rights Obama has shown. We are sure that if he could visit the Kenyan health facilities where women come daily for treatment for abortion complications, or speak to poor women who face unwanted pregnancy, he would make this issue a priority.  He would learn that girls are dropping out of school almost daily because of pregnancies they do not know how to prevent. And once girls drop out, it’s as if they disappear. Many end up in public hospitals with complications of unsafe abortion; because they lack education and access to contraceptives, girls are particularly at risk for unsafe abortion, and they face severe complications.

Our two organizations, KMET and Ipas, are working with educators and young people to improve knowledge about and access to a full range of reproductive health services. But we could use the help of the most powerful leader in the world in changing a policy that continues to block access to one of the most vital health services they need. 

In Kenya, the United States supports an array of reproductive health services – but because of the Helms Amendment, those services do not include safe abortion care, even under the direst circumstances, such as when a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life or when she’s been raped. The Helms Amendment prohibits supporting abortion care “as a method of family planning,” but the Obama administration, like those before it, incorrectly applies the law as a complete ban on abortion-related care and information.

Women who have means do not have to worry about risking their lives for an unsafe abortion. They can pay for safe services in Kenya, or travel to a neighboring country to access abortion. It is only poor women who are being forced to surmount these hurdles. If not for the Helms Amendment, U.S. aid could help poor women who are in search of safe abortion care under the circumstances where it is legal. Instead, they are forced to turn to untrained providers and unsafe care—risking their lives and health. This is a cost no woman or girl should have to bear.

If we were able to plan Obama’s schedule in Kenya, we would introduce him to women treated in health care centers for unsafe abortion so they could tell him their stories. We would introduce him to trained health care providers who could tell him about the women whose lives they were unable to save. It is these women we remember and who inspire us to advocate for their human rights, including better access to safe abortion care.

By correcting the restrictive implementation of the Helms Amendment, Obama could help women get the quality health care they need. Mr. President, we call on you to stand up for vulnerable women and girls in Kenya and other parts of the developing world by allowing U.S. aid for abortion under the Helms Amendment.

Oguttu is a midwife and executive director of KMET, an NGO supporting community-based innovative and sustainable health and education initiatives in western Kenya. Taylor is senior policy adviser at Ipas, an international organization dedicated to expanding access to reproductive health, including safe abortion care; Ipas is based in Chapel Hill, NC.

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