The Catholic Church in Kenya has vowed to continue agitating for the banning of abortion despite the passage of a constitution that the Church opposed on the grounds that it allows abortion on demand. In a referendum that was held on Aug. 4, 69 percent of Kenyans approved the draft constitution which will come into force fully by 2012. 

“We, as the shepherds placed to give moral guidance to our people, reiterate the need to address the flawed moral issues in this constitution, that voice should never be silenced,” said the head of the Catholic Church in Kenya, Cardinal John Njue of Nairobi. 

Section 26 of the new constitution says that abortion is allowed when, in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is need for emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger, or if permitted by any other written law. Under the old constitution, abortion is only permitted if two medical doctors are in agreement that an abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. 

Why they opposed it 

The Catholic Church joined other churches in mobilizing Kenyans to reject the constitution, which had the backing of President Emilio Mwai Kibaki, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka and most members of parliament. 

The group opposed to the constitution comprised church leaders and a small group of politicians led by Higher Education Minister William Ruto. Apart from the abortion clause, they also raised concerns about a clause that will give parliament power to define minimum and maximum sizes of land an individual can own. Another clause — vehemently opposed by Christians — gives constitutional recognition to Muslim “Kadhi” courts, which deal mostly with marriage and inheritance issues. 

Also opposing the new constitution was former President Daniel Arap Moi who warned that the new constitution was divisive. 

Although President Mwai Kibaki hailed the voting process and urged the losers to join hands with the winners to move the country forward, the No group expressed concern over what they called irregularities before and during the vote count. 

“This calls into question the validity of the process and its outcome,” the Christians said in a statement. 

International controversy 

Ruto conceded defeat but urged the government to move with speed to address the concerns which those opposed to the constitution had raised. 

“The majority had their way; we have had our say,” Ruto said. “Kenyans have spoken, and we respect the decision.” 

He added that the No group wants to be part of the process of moving Kenya into the future, noting that the more than 2 million people who rejected the constitution cannot be ignored. 

The Kenyan referendum had also attracted attention outside the country. 

“Many in the media are falsely reporting that the new constitution would not allow abortion except ‘where the life of the mother is in danger,” Jeanne Head, a National Right to Life executive for international affairs, told “The truth is actually the opposite.” 

Despite the passage of the constitution, most Kenyans do not support abortion. An opinion poll conducted in March of this year by Synovate, a respected Kenyan research firm, revealed that 69 percent of Kenyans are against legalizing abortions, while 9 percent support it. Sixteen percent said it doesn’t matter, while 6 percent said they had no opinion. 

Kenya has been seeking to enact a new constitution for the last 20 years. Civil rights groups and opposition politicians began to agitate for a new constitution in the early 1990s, blaming the current constitution for entrenching dictatorship and oppression. 

Then-President Arap Moi resisted the move to have a new constitution because changing the current one threatened his grip on power. When he left office in 2002, new President Mwai Kibaki promised to deliver a new constitution within a hundred days. He was, however, unable to do so. 

A referendum was held in 2005, but it was defeated because Kibaki’s former allies — like Raila Odinga, whom he had sacked from the Cabinet — campaigned against it. 

Church’s lost credibility? 

The push for a new constitution gained more urgency following the interethnic fighting which occurred after the 2007 presidential election, in which Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner but Raila Odinga claimed to be the rightful winner. Under a power-sharing deal brokered by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, enacting a new constitution was placed high on the agenda of attaining sustainable peace in the country. This time around, the coalition government was working in harmony and regional leaders mobilized support from their regions to ensure victory for the Yes camp. 

Under the new constitution, the powers of the president have been greatly reduced. He cannot appoint senior government officials such as the head of the police and the chief justice without approval from parliament. The parliament and judiciary will also be given more independence to serve as a check on the powers of the executive arm of government. 

There are those in Kenya who are of the opinion that by campaigning against the draft constitution and failing to have it defeated in the referendum the church in Kenya has lost credibility. The head of the Catholic Church in Kenya, Cardinal Njue denies this. 

“The vote was not about numbers, but the truth,” Cardinal Njue said. “Truth and right are not about numbers. We, your Catholic bishops, did our bit before the referendum to sensitize Kenyans about the danger of passing a constitution that does not respect our moral values. God will be our judge.” 

David Karanja writes from Kenya.

U.S. Government Meddling? (sidebar)

The U.S. government supported the new constitution. In an interview with the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation last month, President Barack Obama said the U.S. government would not tell Kenyans how to vote but said the enactment of a new constitution would accelerate positive change in Kenya. U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger crisscrossed the country urging Kenyans to read and understand the new constitution. He, too, kept repeating that while Kenyans were free to vote for or against the constitution, he believed that passing it would move the country forward. 

This tacit support for the draft law angered the No group, which accused the U.S. ambassador of violating Kenyan sovereignty. 

“The American ambassador to Kenya has overstepped the limit and should be recalled back to Washington,” said Kenyan politician William Ruto at a press conference in Nairobi last month. 

The U.S. government denied funding the Yes group to influence the passage of the constitution and insisted that it only provided money for civic education to empower Kenyans to understand the document. The U.S. Agency for International Development spent at least $23 million to promote the proposed constitution.