The 2013 Consumer Insight report came to mind when Marie Stopes was banned from advertising and offering abortion services.
The report indicates that seven out of 10 girls first have sex before they turn 17. More recently, the media has published reports on the teenage pregnancy crisis with several schoolgirls giving birth during the ongoing exams.
This is despite the Church preaching constantly against premarital sex, and also advocating against contraception.
No one gets pregnant just for the sheer pleasure of terminating the pregnancy. That decision, for those who opt for it, come after weeks of agonising over the risks and consequences.
For some, it is health concerns or stigma, and for others, like Sandra*, it is the realisation that they simply cannot raise the baby.
Sandra* serves in the worship team in a church in Nairobi, but what most people do not know is that she has terminated three pregnancies.
The first pregnancy was borne out of poverty. Sandra* grew up in Kwale with a widowed mother who did casual work for a living.
There was little money to spare for anything other than food—which was also not guaranteed daily. One time her mother developed a bad case of cholera, making her unable to go out and earn the day’s wage.
Out of despair, she sent Sandra* out of the house with clear instructions to return home with maize flour. She didn’t give her money to buy the flour but instead told her not to be ashamed of using her body to get the food. After all, she was a beautiful young woman.
It sounds cruel, and even absurd, but this was not uncommon especially in their home area. Sandra* left and walked around begging until a man asked what she was willing to do in exchange for five hundred shillings. He did not use a condom.
At 16, Sandra knew very little concerning birth control. She had heard about condoms from the local village banter after a certain girl got pregnant twice in a span of two years.
She overheard some women saying that the girl had better learn to insist that her men use condoms of else she would fill the village with children. That was the full extent of her knowledge on preventing pregnancies.
When Sandra* missed her first period, she thought nothing of it. Her periods had always been irregular.
After some time, she started vomiting in the morning and got nauseous whenever she the smelt eggs or mandazi.
One morning, her mother asked, “Did he use a condom?” Sandra* shook her head, and her mother announced that she was pregnant.
She went ahead to scold her for being foolish and putting herself at risk of catching a disease. After the tongue-lashing, she sent Sandra* to a native doctor to get an abortion.
The native doctor prodded her stomach to know how big the foetus was. He asked her when she last had her periods while he pounded some purple and yellow leaves together with something that looked like the bark of a tree.
He added water to the mixture to form dark liquid which he instructed Sandra* to drink up. The next three days were hell.
Sandra* suffered excruciating cramps that rendered her bedridden. She bled profusely, losing both her strength and the pregnancy.
About a year and a half after the abortion, Sandra* got into a relationship with a neighbour. At first, it was difficult for Sandra* to even think of having sex, but the neighbour was persuasive and eventually they began having protected sex.
Her mother had started making mnazi (local brew), which fetched a decent income and therefore Sandra’s* relationship was not to solicit money. The relationship was wonderful and her boyfriend took great pleasure in indulging her. This, however, was short-lived.
One day, the condom broke when they were having sex but they only realised this afterwards. A panicky Sandra* made a beeline for the chemist where she bought emergency morning after pills.
Convinced that all was well, she went about her life oblivious to what fate had in store for her.
It was when she missed her periods for two months that it occurred to her that she might have gotten pregnant, despite taking the emergency contraceptives. Later on, she reasoned that they could have been fake.
Scared, she told her boyfriend, who said that he was only 19 and not ready to be a father. He claimed that he didn’t have the money to take care of the baby, and warned Sandra* about breathing a word of the pregnancy to his father, who was known to be a very violent man.
Sandra* insisted that she wanted keep the baby, and this led to her boyfriend gradually ignoring her. It took another four weeks before Sandra* found the courage to tell her mother that she was pregnant.
As soon as Sandra* said she was pregnant, her mother pounced on her with blows to the stomach, yelling “How stupid are you? Do you have money to raise a child, or do you think the burden will be mine? You will not burden me! If you can’t use a condom, close your legs!”
She felt alone.
The next morning, her mother gave her money from the mnazi sales and sent Sandra* to a clinic in Kwale Town. It was a small place that boasted having a laboratory and offering minor surgical procedures.
Sandra* was ushered to the ‘theatre’.
The doctor explained that she could not be given any anaesthesia because the procedure might involve loss of blood leading to shock.
He slipped on a pair of gloves and placed a metal tray with an array of instruments on a stool at the bottom of the bed. He then began the procedure.
When the doctor was done, he asked her to continue lying on the bed for another 40 minutes until she regained enough strength to walk out.
This happened right before she sat for her KCSE exam and, to date, Sandra* has never forgotten how gruesome it was.
After the exams, Sandra’s* mother sent her to live with a relative in Nairobi as she waited for her results. The relative was a strict Christian who influenced Sandra to go to church. The change of environment led her to reform her ways and she even joined the church’s worship team. She lost interest in sex. At church, her conversations with boys were cordial, and she made sure none got too close.
One day as Sandra* was walking home from a kesha at 5am, and a man accosted her and raped her.
She got home and washed herself with bleach, scrubbing every part of herself to get rid of the memory. Then she spent the next week lying in bed, not wanting to talk to anyone. She blamed herself for leaving the church when it was still dark.
The pain grew by the day and at some point, she contemplated suicide. Then one morning, she woke up feeling nauseous. When she vomited, it hit her like a thunderbolt -- she was pregnant, again!
Her aunt said nothing when she saw Sandra* vomiting, but her eyes spoke judgement. Sandra* knew that this very judgement would be held by the people in her church. Feeling lost, she called her mother and asked to return home.
Sandra’s* mother could hear none of it but instead sent her some money to get rid of the pregnancy.
Clinics offering abortion in informal settlements in Nairobi are many. She chose a clinic in Kasarani, and this time, the doctor gave her abortion pills and antibiotics to help counter any infection.
Although the procedure was different, the side effects were similar as she experienced painful cramps before bleeding out the pregnancy.
Three times, Sandra* got pregnant through circumstances that were beyond her--poverty, counterfeit pills and rape--and three times, she risked her life to terminate the pregnancies.
It is easy to say abortion is murder and wrong, but having a child who lives under the worst environments is not right either.
When it comes to matters provision, we are usually our own help. Sandra*, learning from her own hardships, knew that she would not be able to raise the child. Her mother’s prompt help in giving her money to procure abortion affirmed that.
Her relative would have sent her back to Kwale, where her mother would not have supported her because of her own financial struggles. Then what?
Sandra* did not want to have a child who had all these odds against them right from the start.
Not everything is black and white. As long as humans continue to have sex, there will be unwanted pregnancies and abortions. And when that happens, it should be up to the woman–who would be the primary caregiver--to decide what to do.
If she is certain she does not want a child conceived from rape, for example, there should be a safe space where she can get the pregnancy terminated by qualified doctors.
A 2008 report by Human Rights Watch documented cases of women who had been raped during the post-election violence. Some of them confessed to hating the children so much they wanted to hit them and cause as much pain as they had endured during their rape ordeals.
A blanket ban on abortion except if the life of the mother is endangered is as idealistic as not teaching children safe sex practices because we imagine they are saving it for marriage. People who seek to terminate pregnancies do not get pregnant intentionally.
Legalising abortion will not necessarily encourage people to have sex, but it certainly would, ironically, help save lives.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.