To Rome said Nero: “If to smoke you turn, I shall not cease to fiddle while you burn.” To Nero Rome replied: “Pray do your worst. ‘Tis my excuse that you were fiddling first.”
Like Nero, Kenya is fiddling with the issue of sex law and education while the cities burn. Perhaps in an attempt to maintain a largely imaginary “clean” society, the Kenyan society has adopted an unrelenting religious attitude where matters of sex law and education are concerned.
This was evident when the Ministry of Education announced its intention to introduce sex education in schools. It is also evident in the uncondescending position taken by the law on abortion. The statistics, however, defy the imaginary “clean” society that we stubbornly maintain. In Kenya, 28.6 per cent of all girls aged between 15 and 19 have had an illegal abortion – that is about one out of every three girls. In most families, this means that one of their daughters will attempt to abort a pregnancy before she is 19 years.
And she will be exposed to grave danger. Illegal abortion complications account for 50 per cent of maternal deaths in labour, 52 per cent of gynecological admissions in hospital and 5 per cent of all hospital admissions. At Kenyatta National Hospital alone, illegal abortion deaths have been estimated at two girls per week. Overall, 73 per cent of all abortions are by girls below the age of 25 years.
Kenya is not alone in this quagmire. There are 55 million abortions every year in the world. Over 20 million of these are illegal and performed under life threatening circumstances. There are 3.5 million abortions every year in Africa. Most of them are illegal as only Zambia has legalized abortion. Over 200,000 women die in the world every year attempting illegal abortions. Hundreds of thousands others escape with permanent injuries to their bodies. Over 90 per cent of these are in countries that prohibit abortion.
Abortion, contrary to popular wisdom, is possibly as old as man. History records the carrying out of abortions as early as AD98 in Greece. The Seronos of Ephesus listed several ways in which abortion could be carried out and explored the reasons why women sought abortion as a solution.
Abortion could in fact have been widely accepted in Greece, and only the philosophers of Pythagorean schools were opposed to it. Even Christians in ancient times were undivided on the issue of abortion. In AD 1315, John of Naples argued very eloquently that abortion was allowable in particular instances, and also that abortion, carried out at an early stage in the pregnancy, was not a sin.
In 1550, a Spanish Sanchez argued that abortion was allowable if the pregnancy had resulted from unlawful coitus. African history has itself evidence of the practice among its societies. This permissive attitude towards abortion was also evident in the English Common Law. At Common Law, abortion performed before the first recognizable movement of the foetus, usually before the 16th week of pregnancy, was not an indictable offence. There was general agreement that prior to animation of the foetus, it belonged to the mother, and its destruction therefore, was not homicide. A more predominant view developing in the 13th Century also held that abortion after animation to be a lesser offence than manslaughter. There was such conflict between the scholars in respect of the legal status of abortion that is difficult to state whether it was an established crime at common law.
The first dead set illegalization of abortion in England was by the Ellenboroughs Act of 1803, enacted by King George III. The Act defined and declared abortion as a criminal offence, making it a felony punishable by death to procure a miscarriage on a pregnant woman.
The enactment was, however, based on a strict moral fibered society, which changed a lot in succeeding decades. By 1937, the death penalty for abortion had been repealed and liberating effects of the Industrial Revolution made the society accept abortion. By 1938, the courts gave doctors an unconditional license to perform abortions.