Senate holds fate of reproductive health bill

It has already been through two readings but religious leaders have been up in arms, calling for it to be shelved to avoid “normalising underage sex”

Senator Susan Kihika, Nakuru County

All eyes are on the Senate, waiting to see how the legislators will handle the Reproductive Healthcare Bill 2019. Religious leaders have been pressing for the bill to be shelved, citing sections they find offensive, threatening to the family institution, and detrimental to the national culture and heritage.

The bill, sponsored by Nakuru Senator Susan Kihika, has gone through the first and second readings and is now at the Committee of the Whole stage, during which the document is considered clause by clause by all plenary senators. At this stage, the bill can be amended but if it is passed, it moves to the National Assembly for further debate. Opponents of the bill want the Senate to withdraw it before it goes that far.

Church leaders under the auspices of the Kenya Christian Ministers Forum say the bill has provisions they find problematic and dangerous if approved into law, and are rooting for withdrawal of the entire document.

In a press statement dated June 29, the leaders appealed to members of the Senate and National Assembly to reject the bill, saying it normalised underage sex and if passed, would open the door for children aged between 10 and 17 years to receive and use contraceptives and procure safe abortions.

“We find this to be wicked and abominable,” said Kepha Omae, the presiding bishop of Redeemed Gospel Churches, when he read the statement in Nairobi on behalf of other church leaders including bishops Mark Kariuki, David Oginde, Stanley Muriuki and Peter Njao.

Muslim leaders have said the statements in the bill allowing “all individuals” to make reproductive health decisions could easily be abused by people who want to corrupt the country’s social and moral fabric.

During a press briefing at Jamia Mosque in Nairobi on June 30, the clerics cited the recently released findings on teenage pregnancies across the country as one of the major reasons they were against the bill along with what they termed legal and religious grounds, and vague definitions.

And in a June 26 virtual meeting organised by the Kenya Christian Professionals Forum (KCPF) to unpack the medical, legal, policy and advocacy aspects of the bill, various experts argued that its passage into law would not only normalise underage sex but also drive a wedge between parents and children in regard to health and sexuality matters.

Like church leaders, the experts felt that the bill also advocates for introduction of the Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) curriculum in schools. Dr Wahome Ngare said although it looked well-packaged and harmless at face value, the letter and spirit of the bill had potential to promote and protect sexual perversion.

Ngare, a senior consultant obstetrician-gynaecologist and laparoscopic surgeon, argued that the bill was in tandem with the CSE principle that sex is for pleasure and that sexual pleasure is a right no one should be denied.

“If we allow sexual pleasure to be taught as a right, what happens when a child wants the pleasure and there is no consenting partner of the opposite sex?” he asked, adding that children should also be taught that the act of sex could result in pregnancy and childbirth, which come with parenting responsibilities. He said people aged below 20 should not be allowed access to sex or contraceptives because their brains are still underdeveloped.

Bishop Kepha Omae during the press conference

Ngare took issue with articles 26 and 27 of the bill, saying they reduced the threshold of the highest attainable standards of healthcare by allowing clinical officers, nurses and midwives to terminate pregnancies despite the fact that their training does not include proficiency in this area.

In addition, he said, Article 27 means if a pregnant woman asks him to terminate her pregnancy and he refuses based on a reason that is valid to him, including his Christian convictions, then he commits an offence and is liable, upon conviction, to imprisonment for three years or a fine of Sh1 million, or both. Also present for the webinar were Joy Mdivo, a legal expert and the executive director of East African Centre for Law and Justice, and Vincent Kimosop, the KCPF executive director and policy expert.

On June 25, Ann Kioko, an advocacy expert and campaigns manager at CitizenGo Africa, presented the organisation’s petition containing 20,000 signatures to Senate Speaker Kenneth Lusaka, the Senate Committee on Health and Ms Kihika seeking the bill’s shelving.

“The Senate is supposed to give us a response within 14 days from the day we presented the petition,” said Ms Kioko, speaking to the SHEPHERD by phone on June 28. “We are also lobbying friendly senators and urging them to convince their colleagues to shoot the bill down, and we are engaging the media to support Christians’ stand. I believe the bill can be stopped before a vote is conducted.”

Should the bill sail through in the Senate, Christians can still hope for a positive response from Members of Parliament, the majority of who, Kioko says, are pro-life.

Meanwhile, Kihika has defended her bill, saying the public has been misinformed about its contents.

“Can anyone point to any section in the bill that legalises abortion, relates to gays and lesbians, advocates for same-sex marriage, encourages underage sex, relates to sex education or encourages rape and bestiality?” she asked in a June 29 Facebook post.

On July 1, The Standard newspaper wrote an editorial in support of the bill, stating that Kenya cannot bury its head in the sand and pretend that teenage pregnancies and abortions are the least of its concerns. The editorial said the bill seemed well-intentioned but as usual, emotions and pedantic positions were gaining currency.

“While the church’s opposition, dictated by its position as the custodian of morality is understandable, Kenyans must face reality and acknowledge that teen pregnancies have risen exponentially hence our youngsters need to be equipped with knowledge that will help them make choices from a point of information,” read part of the editorial, which also rejected what it called attempts by pro-life groups to rename the document “Abortion Bill”.

As the back and forth between proponents and opponents of the bill continues, the spotlight remains on what the Senate will decide in the coming days.