NAIROBI, Kenya – Church leaders in Kenya are vowing to scuttle a decades-long quest for a more democratic constitution over the issue of abortion, and American groups on both sides are weighing in on the debate.
Abortions are illegal in Kenya under current law, but hundreds of thousands of women still seek them each year. The existing law, however, does allow a doctor to perform an abortion if a woman's life is in danger.
That exception is also included in a proposed constitution due to be put to a referendum later this year. Church leaders fear the phrasing will open the door to legalizing abortion, saying that defining a threat to a woman's health could be interpreted broadly.
"It opens the door to abortion on demand, which is why Christian organizations who are pro-life are so opposed to that provision," said Jordan Sekulow, director for international operations at the anti-abortion American Center for Law and Justice, one of the U.S. groups now involved in Kenya's debate.
Last month, the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asking her to call on Kenya to ensure the draft charter does not undermine access to abortions.
The group says at least 2,600 women die each year from unsafe abortions in Kenya. Abortion rights advocates feel the limits in both the current and proposed legislation go too far.
"In order to ensure that Kenya's new constitution recognizes and protects the basic rights of women, it is imperative that attention be called to the current debate on this language and the harmful impact it could have on Kenyan women and families," the group wrote in its letter to Clinton.
President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga ordered a team of Cabinet ministers and lawmakers to negotiate with church leaders. But earlier this week, the Cabinet decided it was too late to rewrite the draft charter, although it said the government could later address some church concerns through legislation. A date has not been set for the referendum but it may take place in June or July.
Rewriting Kenya's constitution was part of the peace deal signed in February 2008 after postelection violence left more than 1,000 people dead.
The draft constitution cuts down the Kenyan president's current enormous powers by setting up an American-style presidential system of checks and balances. Kibaki, who is barred from seeking re-election because of term limits, supports the legislation.
But church leaders, who hold sway in this religious country where the majority of the population is Christian, now say they are willing to forego those gains if the constitution includes a clause on conditional abortion.
Christian leaders are also seeking to end Islamic courts, which arbitrate on personal matters such as inheritance and marriage for members of the country's Muslim minority.
"The current constitution isn't an option for Kenya," said Peter Karanja, the secretary general of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, the main umbrella group of Protestant churches.
Some, though, say it would be a mistake to reject the draft constitution, especially since it only extends the status quo on abortion restrictions.
"This issue (abortion) should not take us back. The constitution as a whole has a lot of gains for women," said Grace Maingi-Kimani, the executive director of the Kenya chapter of the Federation of Women Lawyers.
An opinion poll released last week showed that 64 percent of Kenyans support the draft constitution. About 2,000 people were interviewed on their mobile phones between April 21 and April 23 for the poll carried out by Kenyan firm Synovate. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.
Mary Wandia, a Kenyan women's rights activist, said that a 2005 African Union protocol requires member states to protect a woman's right to abortion in the case of sexual assault, rape, incest or when a pregnancy endangers the mother's health.
Many African countries have outlawed abortion except in those cases, though abortion is legal in South Africa. Wandia said African governments must improve family planning services.
"For me, abortion is the last thing," she said. "It is a sign of all the other things that you have not done."