The Womb

 by Felicity Okoth

Ilustration by Naddya Oluoch.

Abortion — A word from which Africans have often shied away. We, as a society, have not been able to grapple with it in a way that protects the health and life of all women despite one in every five people having procured an abortion or know someone who has. We could continue to hide behind Religion and Law or discuss the subject openly and candidly to address the desperation of the myriad teenage girls and women who resort to backstreet clinics and end up infertile or dead.

Populist fears of the breakdown of the traditional family structure and the disintegration of our culture have been played upon with regards to the word “abortion”. These fears have permeated public discourse and legislation often in a strategic manner. Mainstream religions, being highly patriarchal, have predicated social norms on biological determinism in a manner that has, more often than not, reinforced demonstrably false assumptions about women’s bodies.

The terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life”; which are core to the abortion debate have gained significant attention due to the much publicised pro- and anti- Planned Parenthood activism on the streets and on social media globally. The two terms have often been used as binaries with the latter misconstrued as deriving from religion and the former from antagonistic atheism. Within this binary, it is assumed that an individual cannot be religious and pro-choice or an atheist and pro-life. The debate has drawn in women and men of all races, but the women who are most adversely affected by unplanned pregnancies are women of colour.

Some cultures ostracize a woman who conceives a child outside of wedlock, and sometimes such a woman is exiled from her community. Religion similarly stigmatises such women.  In some churches, members are excommunicated from the congregation if found pregnant. Women have even been stoned to death: For the crime of conceiving a child outside wedlock, in March 2002 Amina Lawal was sentenced to death by stoning by a Sharia Court in Nigeria.

The working woman usually finds herself losing ground on the career ladder as a result of a pregnancy. Anecdotal evidence abounds about conspicuously pregnant women being rejected during job interviews due to their condition. Unfortunately, the law in Kenya is not very vocal about discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace. This relegates women to the position of second-class citizens who, as a consequence of being pregnant, are barred from participating fully in society and enjoying the common life prevailing in it.

On the other hand, a woman who fails to get pregnant is shamed for being apparently infertile, incapable of mothering, a travesty of womanhood, and a disgrace to the society. This amounts to a total objectification of her womb and her body, subjecting her to a sense of self that is overdetermined from without.

Abortion then becomes a political act of resistance to the dominant social order that militates against a woman’s subjectivity. It becomes one of the tools of  women’s survival in a society that cares little about how the child brought forth or the child’s mother will survive. As an act, it is a disassociation from what is set for her, before her.

Most women who choose abortion, however, do so not out of a lack of respect for human life or because they assign no value to motherhood but because they appreciate that carrying a pregnancy to term not only yields a baby but their baby, and that birthing turns one into a different person, a mother. Most of these women have a clear idea of what it means to be a good mother, and they are honest that at the time of their predicament, they fall short of such an ideal or are not willing or ready to become one. They understand the duties and responsibilities of motherhood and their abilities in that regard. A woman aborts because she understands that gestation will reshape her body and soul, transforming her into a mother biologically and emotionally as well as socially, and it is precisely that transformation that she consciously chooses not to undergo.

Being pro-choice however should not be presented as promoting abortion as the best option for all women facing an unplanned pregnancy. Far from it, being pro-choice is about three things: ensuring that women have access to safe and legal abortion if they choose to; ensuring that a woman’s choice to abort really is a genuine choice of her own accord and free will; respecting and supporting any choice that a woman makes in regard to her pregnancy whether that be abortion, adoption, or parenting.

Pro-choice advocates consistently and correctly argue that abortion is never an easy decision. Pro-choice affirms the validity of a woman’s decision to abort, both by acknowledging the reasons she aborted and well as the difficulties she may have experienced in reaching that decision. It also affirms the validity of a woman’s decision to be a mother. This helps draw a distinction between being pro-choice and being pro-abortion. The latter refers to being in favour of the medical provision of abortion and abortion-care.

Whilst there are pro-choice advocates who do not regard abortion as a moral issue and who disagree that foetal life is valuable and worthy of some degree of protection, there are feminist pro-choice advocates who, while fervently arguing in favour of abortion rights, also express care about the welfare of foetal life. A feminist need not completely negate the life of the foetus from moral consideration in order to defend abortion rights. Foetal life matters to many women, including women who defend the right to abortion. Their voices need not be erased from public debate.

The question around foetal life — whether a fertilized embryo is a bulk of organic tissue or inchoate life — because it is emotive, takes the focus away from the deep, structural issues around women’s agency and wellbeing that are yet to be addressed. There is need to shift the emphasis of pro-choice discourse from its perceived incompatibility with expressing respect for foetal life to one that demonstrates a fuller respect for those women who have functioning uteri, are the only humans capable of bearing life, and must make decisions regarding that potential life embodied in those cells as well as their own actual life.

The African woman’s greatest enemy has always been systemic poverty which disproportionately affects her. The effects of this systemic poverty are felt at the intersection of all possible social categories of gender, culture, religion, ability, fertility, age, and so on. The reality facing a single young African woman should she decide to bring an unplanned pregnancy to term is often dire which is why so many such women decide to abort. Women who live below the poverty line are about four times as likely to obtain an abortion compared to those who live above the poverty line. On average, single women have a higher poverty rate than single men, a phenomenon described by Diana Pearce as the “feminization of poverty”. Children born of teen mothers face a host of difficulties including increased risks of failure in schools, poverty, and even of incidences of physical and mental illness. The main reason women choose abortion is financial difficulty.

This should concern pro-choice advocates because aborting for such reasons compromises genuine choice. One of my favourite feminist writers on this issue, posits that;

If poverty is the reason she is terminating the pregnancy, if in fact she wants the child but cannot afford to have it, she is actually being coerced into abortion. She does not, in fact, have a choice at all […] Feminists should make our positions clear that when we talk about the “right to choose”, we are not talking about women having abortions solely because they can’t afford the child. Obviously, if we are going to work for choice in our reproductive lives, we also have to work to bring about the conditions — social, economic, cultural — that will make it a real possibility”.

Thus the struggle does not stop at the right to choose what we are going to do with our bodies but extends to how we can change the system to accommodate us when we eventually feel able to choose motherhood.  

Pro-life as a movement gives primacy to the sanctity of life and its protection from the moment of conception to natural death thus shunning abortion and euthanasia. The movement has its roots in religion but is not limited to the religious. I know of pro-choice feminists who would never themselves opt for abortion and are thus also pro-life just as there are deeply religious individuals who are pro-life and who have themselves procured abortions.

For years, the mainstream media, pop culture and the conventions of liberal politics in the developed world have jammed pro-life politicians and activists into a box with claims that an embryo is mere organic tissue and not life as such, thus a woman should be able to do away with that tissue if she so wishes. I find problems with this because a human embryo is biologically alive if we go by the criteria needed to establish biological life, that is: metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction. The same criteria are used by scientists to categorize bacteria as life in Mars.  Arguments I favour are those that question if the embryo is a person which has less to do with biology but everything to do with each individual’s own morals, politics, and philosophy. It is into this emotive space that religion and personal conviction enter.

Beyond debating when life begins, the pro-life movement in its pursuits to protect life from conception to natural death has been less vocal with regards to the welfare of this same life between conception and natural death. It would be unfair to generalise about all pro-lifers as I know of many hospitals, orphanages, schools run by various churches who are all concerned with the quality of a life as it is lived; these good deeds are however overshadowed by conservative rhetoric by people who identify as pro-life yet seem not to care about the welfare of their fellow citizens. Why would an embryo’s life matter so much to an individual who has little regard for the poor or those different from them with regards to race and religion? This paradox, is described by Sister Joan Chittister:

“I do not believe that just because you are opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking  if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you do not want tax money to go there. That is not pro-life. That is pro-birth. We need a broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

In Kenya, we cannot persecute women for opting out of motherhood when under the watch of the executive we squander the little that would help make maternal care financially manageable. The National Youth Service is reported by Kenyan media to have lost 791 million Kenyan Shillings under the watch of a few corrupt officials. The National Youth Development Fund is also is reported to have lost money to the tune of 500 million. In total we are talking about money to the tune of 1.291 billion Kenyan Shillings. This is half the amount set up for the Affirmative Action and Social Development Fund (KES 2.1 billion) in the 2015-16 National Budget. One cannot fail to see that the money lost could go a long way in improving maternal care, reproductive health, youth employment and development. These are the same issues that have been found to cumulatively contribute to a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy in one way or another.

Beyond research, these issues call all who claim to be pro-lifers to political action, seeking not merely limits to abortion, but strengthened maternal care policies, child-support laws, compassionate maternity-leave policies, and adequate accessible medical care for all women. If these issues are not given the attention they deserve, it will be futile to attempt to stop a girl, by law or religion, from heading to a quack for an unsafe abortion.

Beyond abortion, the discussion of safe and accessible methods of family planning that would protect African women’s health and allow them to control their fertility has been mired with allegations of population control by critical political theorists and religious clerics, the most vocal being the Catholic Church. The notion that family planning programs have been designed as a component of development projects aimed at population control makes it more difficult for African women to wholeheartedly adopt the programs. Such programs have instead aroused strong suspicion and opposition among women. It has so far been impossible worldwide to separate birth control programs from oppressive population control policies.

I strongly believe that African women would desire to control their fertility but are often unable to access medically safe alternatives. Young women who seek contraceptives often either lack sufficient information or are unfairly judged by those with the expertise to assist them. During my undergraduate studies six years ago, a friend was turned away, on moral grounds, by the school nurse, when she sought long-term contraceptives. I do not believe that she was the only one. Young African women are having sex and at an early age. We could choose to embrace the reality or we shall collectively perish. In Kenya, during the World AIDS Day, statistics released revealed a sharp increase in HIV infection rates among teenagers, with the girls being over-represented.

Countries that have not made talking about sex a taboo have the fewest incidences of abortion. Such countries have implemented comprehensive sex education programs and access to contraception in addition to offering social support programs that provide financial safety nets for their citizens and residents. Such support makes coming of age less perilous for both teenagers and their parents. The very lack of such social welfare programs and high rates of child poverty in Africa contributes to escalating rates of birth among teenagers. Without adequate support systems and education these teenagers are drawn into the vicious cycle of multigenerational female poverty.

Of course this will not eliminate abortions entirely as contraceptives will and do occasionally fail, even with perfect use, and some women simply do not want to be mothers despite their affluence, neither at the time of their pregnancy nor ever. Moreover as long as sexual violence exists against women, access to abortions is needed for the women who cannot bring their pregnancy to term after being victimized.

If the pro-life goal is to reduce abortion, criminalizing it without offering concurrent social support will be ineffective. Rather, a genuine effort to reduce abortions would include implementing social policies that would offer prenatal and postnatal care for both mother and child, quality and affordable childcare that will enable parents complete their education or obtain full-time work, and support for victims of sexual and physical abuse. It is also paramount to ensure that certain aspects of the society, for instance discrimination against pregnant women in places of employment, overlooking mothers with young children during job promotions, school and work premises that are hostile to nursing mothers, and so on are restructured through national affirmative policies. This way, fewer women will feel coerced into choosing an abortion out of fear that having a child will force them to compromise other worthwhile goals.

As a pro-life feminist, I believe that it should be our duty to show a respect for both freedom of choice and freedom of conscience for those who see life, but not an actual person in a human embryo. It possible for one to disagree with anyone who sees neither human life nor the potential for human personhood in an embryo and at the same time respect the dignity of those who in good conscience hold that view.

When a state deprives women of control over their own reproductive capacity through abortion restrictions, it is making a social statement about women’s roles and status in the community. Having female bodies and the physical ability to bear children does not mean that all women share a nurturing nature that makes them alone inherently fit to care for children; nor is it the case that men lack the capacity for such caregiving. Work-leave policies that differentiate on the basis of gender (offering lengthy maternity leave but brief paternity leave) reinforce the pervasive gender-role stereotypes that caring for the family is a woman’s work while the man is expected to work more and entitled to earn more. Such stereotypes produce a self-sustaining cycle that reinforces women’s role are primary caregivers while discouraging men from such roles. Such a situation prevents women from determining the course of their  lives and from shaping their own destinies. They most certainly deny them the freedom and equality so prized by democratic peoples and inscribed in the Kenyan Bill of Rights.

The gender equitable argument implies that just as men do not have to get pregnant as a consequence of the sexual act, women who do, should sufficiently be supported. The professional and personal lives of men are not usually interrupted by an ill-timed pregnancy, or are not interrupted to the same extent that women’s lives are, and neither then should women’s lives be so disrupted. Consequently, the law should recognize that women who wish to have “non-procreative sex” are as entitled as men to constitutional protection of their right to define their own destiny. In other words, women should be equally entitled to remain detached from the potential consequences of sex.

There is need for the invitation of pro-lifers to expand the morals arguments of their position as opposed to relying on arguments from authority, emotion, fear, or threat. Pro-choicers, on the other hand should also think of articulating a moral argument rather than merely rights-based ones, given that the African context and Kenya, in particular, is extremely hostile to the ideas of abortion and pro-choice. The feminist movement in the region needs to continue to lead  an open discussion about the moral, ethical, physical, and emotional complexity of abortion that would be more likely to resonate with young African women; a contextualization that takes into cognisance culture, religion, class, pre- and post- abortion care for women who have opted to terminate their pregnancies.

Finally, in this pro-choice, pro-life debate, we must focus not only on who has the power and autonomy in the hierarchy of bodies and who is deprived of them, nor on who has the right over the body or who is forced to be subject to the will of power.  We must rather seek the patterns of liberation for women, together, that emerge from this debate. Discourse transmits and produces power, reinforces it, but also can subvert and expose it, render it fragile and makes it possible to thwart and change. The goal is always to ensure that all women everywhere are safe, healthy, free, and enjoying expanding range of possibilities their lives have to offer.