Kenyan women deserve better than 6 years of inaction

Kenyan women’s groups demand President Obama ease restriction on aid for abortion

As President Obama visits Kenya and Ethiopia this week, local and global reproductive health advocates are taking the opportunity to highlight how his administration’s strict enforcement of the ban on using US foreign aid for abortion care is killing women. 

Kenyan women deserve better than 6 years of inactionFor over 40 years, the Helms Amendment has prevented US foreign assistance from paying for abortion “as a method of family planning.” Much like the Hyde Amendment, the policy is discriminatory and unjust. When it was first passed, the Nixon administration objected to its “imperialistic and hypocritical overtones.” Not to mention, of course, that there is no question that access to family planning, including abortion, is critical in any effort to improve reproductive health and advance women’s rights — ostensibly two major goals of most US development efforts. Unsafe abortions are responsible for 13 percent of all maternal deaths worldwide each year.

Even worse, the Helms Amendment has been wrongly implemented as a total ban on abortion funding — even though it’s impossible to claim that the procedure is being used as a “method of family planning” in cases of incest, rape, and life endangerment. Even the Hyde Amendment, and other bans on federal funding of abortion, allow for these exceptions. Though overturning Helms entirely requires Congress to act, President Obama can fix the implementation problem right now. Over 70 US and global reproductive health organizations have penned a letter asking him to do so. So have dozens of religious leaders.

And in Kenya, 15 women’s rights groups are calling for it too. As Jina Moore reports at Buzzfeed, Kenya legalized abortion in some circumstances in 2010 to combat its very high rate of maternal deaths from unsafe abortion, but local advocates say it’s been impossible to access since USAID pushed the country’s Ministry of Health to withdraw medical guidelines for the procedure a couple years ago. In advance of President Obama’s trip, reproductive health groups put up this billboard; it was promptly torn down by agents of the Kenyan government.

During a trip in which President Obama will be focusing on economic empowerment, Kenyan activists are demanding he recognize that protecting women’s health is an integral part of that project. “Women are dying [and] women are getting injured from unsafe abortions… The country is spending so much money on a very preventable illness, if you may call it that,” Catherine Nyambura of the feminist organization Dandelion Kenya explained. “You can’t purport to invest in women if they are not healthy.”

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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