Police harass Kenyan patients and clinics as abortion battle heats up

Police threats against patients and medics they accuse of giving "illegal abortions", coupled with reversals in Kenyan policies, are stirring fears likely to reduce access to safe abortions, campaigners said.

Doctors and nurses say police intimidation has increased since last month's sentencing to death of a nurse, Jackson Tali, for murder after a woman died in his car.

"The police have taken advantage of the ruling to harass healthcare providers in the country," said a statement from the Reproductive Health and Rights Alliance, a coalition including the Kenya Medical Association and National Nurses Association of Kenya.

Tali, has appealed the ruling, arguing that he tried to save the woman's life in 2009 when she came to his clinic in Gachie, 15km west of Nairobi, bleeding heavily.

The fear provoked by the Tali ruling will make it harder for women to receive safe abortions or post-abortion care, campaigners said.

"If I come in bleeding, the healthcare provider would feel: 'No, no, no, if I touch her and then something happens, I could be charged with murder'," said Judith Okal, a Nairobi-based lawyer with the Center for Reproductive Rights advocacy group told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Police walked into one health clinic and threatened to arrest women they claimed were seeking abortions, Okal said.

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In another case, she said a nurse paid a bribe after police told him: "You have heard of that nurse who was charged and sentenced for procuring an abortion. We can charge you with that."

"The police are visiting clinics on Fridays to extort money from the health providers claiming that we should be jailed," gynaecologist John Nyamu said in the statement.

Nyamu spent a year in jail awaiting trial for murder after his clinic was raided in 2004. He was later acquitted.

Police in Kenya could not immediately be reached for comment.

ONE-THIRD OF MATERNAL DEATHS

Abortion is a hotly contested issue in Kenya and across Africa, where conservative religious beliefs hold sway.

Unsafe abortions, often caused by inserting knitting needles into the cervix or drinking bleach, account for 35 percent of maternal deaths in Kenya, versus the global average of 13 percent.

At least 2,600 Kenyan women die in public hospitals each year after having botched backstreet abortions. Many more die at home without seeking medical care.

"How to perform an abortion" was the most popular Google search topic in Kenya in 2012.  

Prior to 2010, three doctors had to given written consent for the procedure to be performed.

In its 2010 constitution, Kenya allowed the procedure if a health professional deems it necessary for emergency treatment or "the life or health of the mother is in danger".

However, enforcement of the law is ambiguous.

Rich women easily access safe abortions in private facilities, but the poor and uneducated risk their lives trying to expel the foetus themselves or with backstreet quacks, believing that they cannot legally get an abortion.

The government is fighting to undo the increased access promised by the constitution, campaigners said.

In 2012, the government published for the first time safe abortion guidelines for medics, but the health ministry's Director of Medical Services (DMS) rescinded them in December 2013.

In February, the DMS forbid government healthcare providers from attending trainings on safe abortion.

"It's like the ministry is on a path to make sure that women and girls in Kenya are not going to get access to safe abortion services," Okal said.

A 2013 government report estimated that 464,000 abortions are performed in Kenya each year.

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