Tag Archives: maternal mortality rates

Focus on providing safe abortion services, not post-abortion care.

In order to minimize the problem of unsafe abortion and its impacts there is an urgent need for a paradigm shift in strategic planning, from the present focus on ‘post-abortion care’ to provision of ‘safe abortion services’. The present challenge for Kenya under the new constitutional dispensation ought to be ensuring all women who are legally entitled to legal termination of pregnancy do access the services without unnecessary impediments.

Addressing the problem of unsafe abortion in Kenya should significantly contribute to the achievement of Millennium Development Goal 5 on Improving Maternal Health, considering that unsafe abortion is one of the major factors behind the high maternal mortality rates in the country. In addition, complications resulting from unsafe abortion contribute to serious sequelae for women’s reproductive health such as chronic pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and infertility. The incidence of unsafe abortion generally reflects the magnitude of unwanted (unplanned) pregnancies in a particular community. Hence, the only sure way of effectively minimizing unsafe abortion is to ensure women have easy access to safe, effective and acceptable contraceptive information and services, backed up by policies that promote social justice and equality, enhanced status of women, as well as legislation that decriminalizes abortion.

The single, greatest challenge to addressing unsafe abortion in Africa is the lukewarm commitment on the part of governments to promote, protect and respect women’s reproductive rights, including the right to access safe and legal abortion services. This lack of political will affects the availability, accessibility, and quality of abortion-related care.

For several years there has been a mistaken notion that post-abortion care (PAC) services provide the solution to morbidity and mortality associated with unsafe abortion[i]. Consequently considerable resources have been expended on expansion of these services. Unfortunately, although PAC services can (and do) save lives, in many respects the intervention comes late, at the tail-end of the train of events that precipitated the tragedy in the first place, and as such they cannot be considered an efficient public health strategy for the prevention of abortion-related morbidity and mortality.

Prevention of unsafe abortion requires a paradigm shift in strategic planning, to a focus on provision of ‘safe abortion, not post-abortion care, services’.

‘Safe abortion’ services are those provided by trained health workers, supported by policies, regulations and a functional health infrastructure, including equipment and supplies[ii]. Performance of abortion outside these conditions constitutes ‘unsafe abortion’.

The new Constitution of Kenya, while maintaining the longstanding restrictive stance towards abortion, it nevertheless, does provide opportunities for enhancing the reproductive health and rights of Kenyan women. The Constitution is explicit in the chapter on Bill of Rights regarding circumstances when abortion may be legal. Article 26 (4) states: Abortion is not permitted unless, 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, or if permitted by any other written law. Although several questions arise from this statement, for example: Who is a trained health professional? Is there any emergency that does not threaten life or health of the mother? What definition of ‘health’ is implied here? etc., whatever the answers may be the Constitution has entrenched the right for a woman to have a legal abortion, though under certain conditions.  The present challenge for Kenya then is to ensure women who are legally entitled to legal termination of pregnancy can access the services without hindrance or delay.

Experience in other countries where abortion has been legalized shows that women are often denied safe abortion services to which they are legally entitled[iii]. The reasons for this include the following:

  • Provider related factors: lack of knowledge of the law, or failure to apply the law, by providers, negative provider attitudes, biases and conscientious objection, and lack of awareness (or neglect) among providers of their ethical/legal obligations to provide women in need with appropriate information on where safe abortion services can be obtained.
  • Medical policies and bureaucracy: insistence on unnecessary/outdated medical abortion techniques e.g. requirement for hospitalization, use of general anaesthesia, etc.; opposition to task-shifting, and other regulatory bottlenecks.
  • Other factors: lack of public information about the law; lack of awareness about facilities providing safe abortion services; lack of awareness (among women) of need to report early in pregnancy.

[i] Mati JKG J. Adolescent reproductive health in the era of HIV/AIDS: Challenges and Opportunities. Obstet. Gynecol. East Cent. Afr. (2005); 18: 1-18

[ii] World Health Organisation. (2003) Safe Abortion: Technical and Policy Guidance for Health Systems. Geneva, World Health Organisation

[iii] World Health Organisation. (2003) Safe Abortion: Technical and Policy Guidance for Health Systems. Geneva, World Health Organisation

How Kenya’s New Constitution is likely to impact on access to safe abortion services

Background:

The aim of this presentation is to contribute to the understanding of the provisions in the New Constitution as they relate to access to safe abortion services in Kenya, and to analyse areas of particular concern in the implementation of the Constitution. In order for Kenya to achieve Millennium Development Goal 5 on Improving Maternal Health, it is imperative that the issue of unsafe abortions is addressed, since this is a major contributor to the high maternal mortality rates in the country. In addition, complications resulting from unsafe abortion contribute to serious sequelae for women’s reproductive health such as chronic pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and infertility.

 

The incidence of unsafe abortion generally reflects the magnitude of unwanted pregnancies in a particular community. Hence, the only sure way of effectively minimizing unsafe abortion is to ensure women have easy access to contraceptive information and services, backed up by positive legislation that decriminalizes abortion. According to UN data[ii], in most so-called developing countries like Kenya, there was a trend towards enactment of more restrictive abortion laws in the period between 1999 and 2007 (Figure 1). Whereas in nearly all countries abortion is permitted to save a mother’s life, only 60 percent and 57 percent respectively of the countries permit abortion to preserve a mother’s physical and mental health. Rape or incest, and fetal abnormalities are respectively considered in 37 percent and 32 percent of the countries; and in only 19 percent are economic or social considerations entertained. Abortion is available on demand in some 15 percent of developing countries.

 

Figure 1: Grounds on which abortion is permitted – percentage of countries

Source: (World Abortion Policies 2007 )

Constitutional provisions that are relevant to abortion services in Kenya

The new Constitution of Kenya, while maintaining the longstanding restrictive stance towards abortion[i], it nevertheless, does provide opportunities for enhancing the reproductive health and rights of Kenyan women, which if adequately implemented can significantly contribute to the reduction of the high maternal mortality rates prevailing in Kenya today, and the achievement of MDG 5. In particular, the Constitution of Kenya:

  • Is committed to nurture and protect the well-being of the individual, the family, communities and the nation[ii].
  • Guarantees reproductive health care as a right for all Kenyans[iii]
  • Commits the government to implement international conventions, and regional commitments that Kenya has pledged to support such as CEDAW[iv] and the Maputo[v] Plan of Action[vi],
  • Guarantees that every person has inherent dignity and the right to have that dignity respected and protected[vii], and
  • Guarantees equality and freedom from discrimination for every Kenyan[viii]

 

The Constitution of Kenya is explicit in the chapter on Bill of Rights regarding circumstances when abortion may be legal. Article 26 (4) states: Abortion is not permitted unless, 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, or if permitted by any other written law. In other words, abortion can be permissible if in the opinion of a trained health professional there is need for emergency treatment (as in cases of severe pre-eclampsia and eclampsia), or the life or health of the mother is in danger (as in the case of severe cardiac disease, or complicated diabetes mellitus that is not adequately responding to treatment).

 

To a certain degree Article 26 (4) has widened access to safe abortion in Kenya through the inclusion of danger to ‘health’ as a ground for abortion in addition to danger to ‘life’, of the mother previously provided in Section 240 of the Penal Code[ix]. As it stands today, the Code of Professional Conduct and Discipline published by the Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board mentions, in addition, the health of the baby: “There is room, however, for carrying out termination when in the opinion of the attending doctors it is necessary in the interest of the health of the mother or baby”.

 

Restrictive medical practices

The Code of Professional Conduct and Discipline (see above) goes on to provide guidance on how medical practitioners should proceed in cases where there is ground for termination of pregnancy (TOP): “In these circumstances, it is strongly advised that the practitioner consults with at least two senior and experienced colleagues, obtains their opinion in writing and performs the operation openly in hospital if he considers himself competent to do so in the absence of a Gynecologist”. This guideline can present a serious access barrier, for example for the solitary medical worker in rural areas, where a second opinion may be a considerable distance away. Similarly restricting performance of abortion procedures to hospitals is not only restrictive but may also be unnecessary, considering that modern techniques for TOP can safely be carried out on an outpatient basis.

 

In addition, quite often in order to establish the risk to the life of the woman, a psychiatric assessment is required. This is not only discriminative to those living far from urban centres where psychiatrists are to be found. In addition, it is a process that gives the woman a label of psychiatric illness, besides being expensive, time consuming, and in many respects completely unnecessary. It is an invasion of the inherent dignity of the woman (see above). In many respects these practices serves to discourage rather than facilitate access to safe abortion services.

 

Provision of Safe abortion services[x]

The World Health Organization defines ‘unsafe abortion’ as “a procedure for terminating an unwanted pregnancy either by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment lacking the minimal medical standards, or both”[xi]. ‘Safe abortion’ services, on the other hand, imply the services are provided by well-trained health personnel and supported by policies, regulations and a health systems infrastructure, including equipment and supplies.

 

Almost all the deaths and complications from unsafe abortion are preventable through application of safe abortion practices. Termination of pregnancy (TOP) is a safe medical procedure when performed by trained health care providers using proper equipment, correct technique and ensuring infection prevention standards.

 

Regrettably, in many circumstances where women are legally entitled to have an abortion, safe services are not available to them due to a range of reasons, which include the following:

  • Provider associated problems and biases: a lack of trained providers (recruitment constraints; poor deployment and distribution); negative provider attitudes; stigmatization and other sanctions; conscientious objection among health workers.
  • Medical policies and practices: insistence on hospitalization; insistence on use of unnecessary or outdated techniques including use of general anaesthesia; opposition to task-shifting, and other regulatory bottlenecks.
  • Lack of knowledge of the law or lack of application of the law by providers; lack of public information about the law and women’s rights under the law.
  • Lack of awareness about facilities providing abortion or the need to obtain abortion services early in pregnancy.
  • Lack of awareness among health workers of their ethical and legal obligations to respect women’s rights, and to provide women in need with adequate information on where and how safe abortion services can be obtained.

 

Prevention of unsafe abortion and its complications

The Africa Union’s Maputo Plan of Action for the Operationalisation of the Continental Policy Framework for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (2007-2010) aimed to reduce the incidence of unsafe abortion, through the following strategies:

  • Enacting policies and legal frameworks to reduce incidence of unsafe abortion;
  • Preparing and implementing national plans of action to reduce incidence of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortion;
  • Training service providers in the provision of comprehensive safe abortion care services where national law allows;
  • Providing safe abortion services to the fullest extent of the law;
  • Educating communities on available safe abortion services as allowed by national laws;
  • Training health providers in prevention and management of unsafe abortion

 

On the whole, there is consensus that to effectively reduce the incidence of unsafe abortion women must have easy access to contraceptive information and services, backed up by positive legislation that decriminalizes abortion. Table 1 shows a suggested three-tier scheme for the prevention of unsafe abortion and the related morbidity and mortality.

 

Table 1: A three-tier scheme for the prevention of abortion related morbidity and mortality[xii]

Conclusion 

 

This review has shown that the new Constitution of Kenya, despite the restrictive stance on abortion, does at the same time provide opportunities for enhancing the reproductive health and rights of Kenyan women. Hence, to be effective in the provision of safe abortion services, it is imperative that health care providers do familiarise themselves with these provisions in the Constitution. This will avoid the introduction or continuation of unwarranted access barriers to what should be legally availed to women in need.

Unsafe abortion remains an important contributor to the unacceptably high levels of maternal morbidity and mortality that prevail in Kenya; it is a key challenge to the achievement of MDG 5, as well as attaining the health targets set out in Kenya’s Vision 2030. In addressing the issue of unsafe abortion particular focus should be on ensuring equity in access to health care, especially for the poor and marginalised communities. Despite the paucity of supportive data, it is highly possible that considerably more induced abortions occur among the wealthier and more mature women than among the poor young single women that are often reported from public institutions. However, it is the latter that protract Kenya’s high maternal mortality rates, and who create the stiffest challenge to the attainment of national and international goals, if they are left ‘out of the loop’. In any case, the Constitution guarantees equality and freedom from discrimination for everyone.

 

Related Links


[i] Japheth Mati, New abortion law is still bad for women. STAR Thursday 29 April 2010

[ii] Preamble to the Constitution of Kenya

[iii] Article 43 (1) (a) Every person has the right to the highest attainable standard of health, which includes the right to health care services, including reproductive health care

[iv] CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, is an international agreement that affirms principles of fundamental human rights and equality for women around the world. It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 through Resolution 34/180.

[v] Maputo Plan of Action for the Operationalisation of the Continental Policy Framework for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights 2007-2010

[vi] Art. 2 (6) Any treaty or convention ratified by Kenya shall form part of the law of Kenya

[vii] Article 28 Every person has inherent dignity and the right to have that dignity respected and protected

[viii] Article 27 on Equality and freedom from discrimination

[ix] “A person is not criminally responsible for performing in good faith and with reasonable care and skill a surgical operation upon an unborn child for the preservation of the mother’s life if the performance of the operation is reasonable having regard to the patient’s state at the time, and to all the circumstances of the case” Section 240 of the Penal Code, Laws of Kenya.

[x] World Health Organisation. (2003) Safe Abortion: Technical and Policy Guidance for Health Systems. Geneva, World Health Organisation

[xi] World Health Organization. (1992) The prevention and management of unsafe abortion. Report of a Technical Working Group. Geneva, World Health Organization. (WHO/MSM/92.5)

[xii] Source: Mati JKG J. Adolescent reproductive health in the era of HIV/AIDS: Challenges and Opportunities. Obstet. Gynecol. East Cent. Afr. (2005); 18: 1-18


A commentary on Unsafe Abortion in Africa

Unsafe abortion remains a major contributor to the unacceptably high levels of maternal morbidity and mortality rates that prevail in Africa. It also continues to be one of the formidable challenges to the achievement of Millennium Development Goal 5 of improving maternal health by 2015. This is despite the many meetings and conferences that have addressed the issue over the last four decades, one of the earliest being the IPPF Regional Conference on Family Welfare and Development in Africa, Ibadan, Nigeria, August/September, 1976, where I was privileged to present a paper entitled Abortion in Africa[1]. Perhaps the most recent meeting is the Ipas[2] sponsored conference in Ghana (November 8-11, 2010), entitled “Keeping Our Promise: Addressing Unsafe Abortion in Africa”.

The persistence of unsafe abortion in Africa is, ultimately, perpetuated by two key factors: (a) the restrictive laws against termination of pregnancy; and (b) the limited or lack of access to adequate abortion services. Criminalisation of abortion in majority of African countries is something inherited from the colonial laws, despite the fact that the law has since decriminalised the procedure in the colonial “mother countries” (United Kingdom 1967; France 1975; Italy 1978; Spain 1985; Belgium 1990). On the other hand, it can be observed that passing of laws for or against abortion has little effect on the numbers of abortions that take place; in fact, the only difference is that the patterns of morbidity and mortality associated with abortion change. Stringent laws against abortion will not deter women in need from going through with an abortion, the only thing such laws achieve is to push many of them to undergo unsafe procedures with consequent high rates of morbidity and mortality. The procedure of medical termination of pregnancy is simple, short and safe when undertaken in the open, by trained persons; however, carried out in secrecy, usually by unskilled operators, it is expensive, unsafe and life threatening.

Obviously, like many other freedoms- legalisation of abortion may be abused, when abortion becomes a primary method of birth control, as happened in the former USSR. Increased access to contraception since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has led to a reduction in the numbers of abortions in Russia. However, it should be realised that induced abortion may still be the only means of birth control for many women in some parts of Africa, i.e. women who have very limited access to contraception, including adolescents and youths who are denied not only the services but also information on sexuality, on moralistic grounds. For such women, the desire to do away with an unwanted pregnancy can be so intense that they will avail themselves of this last resort despite the law, or the attendant risk to their lives. Sadly, many of these women live in countries where penal codes do sanction abortion under certain conditions but they are unaware of this provision; or, for various reasons, they cannot access safe abortion services in their countries.

Evidence from the Demographic and Health Surveys, over the last three decades, shows that women (and men) in most parts of Africa have increasingly taken to contraceptive practice. For anyone who chooses to practice contraception the hope is that it would not fail her or him. The shock of the discovery that this is not so, though infrequent, can drive the hapless individual seeking termination of the pregnancy. For most people it follows logic that if contraception is acceptable, then consideration for abortion should follow where there is failure- this is why in many countries medical termination of pregnancy is an accepted second line of defence against unwanted pregnancy.

Finally, in addressing the issue of unsafe abortion particular focus is needed on ensuring equity in access to health care, especially for the poor and marginalised communities, who are the main victims of quacks in backstreet clinics. Despite the absence of supportive data at this moment, it is highly possible that in many African countries, considerably more induced abortions occur among the wealthier and more mature women than among the poor young single women, that are often reported from public institutions. It is the latter that sustain Africa’s high abortion-related maternal mortality rates, and who will make it impossible to attain national and international goals, if they are left ‘out of the loop’.

Related Link

On The Abortion Question

[1] Mati JKG. Abortion in Africa. In Family Welfare and Development  in Africa. Proceedings of IPPF Regional Conference, Ibadan, Nigeria, August/September,1976.

[2] http://www.ipas.org/Library/News/News_Items/Keeping_Our_Promise_Addressing_Unsafe_Abortion_in_Africa.aspx Conference co-sponsored by FEMNET, Ghana Ministry of Health, IPPF Africa Regional Office, Marie Stopes International and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. A BBC interview on this conference is available on http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/2010/11/101109_ghana_abortion_conference.shtml

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