Sunday, February 7, 2010

Life begins both at conception and at birth

Sunday Nation 07 February 2010

Early last week, the National Council of Churches of Kenya declared that Christians would vote against the draft constitution if, among other things, it contains provisions for the kadhi’s courts.

This opinion is not new, and it agrees with the views that have been doing the rounds in cyberspace and elsewhere among members of the Christian right. Three main reasons are cited by these elements for rejection of the draft constitution:

One, the proposed constitution purportedly contains provisions for Sharia law. To demonstrate just how bad this law is for Christians, someone even pointed out to me that a provision in the said draft provides for the prosecution and jailing of Christians who proselytise Muslims.

Many are utterly convinced that this clause will be included in the final draft of the proposed constitution, and this conviction forms one of the basis of their antagonism towards the document.

Two, it is claimed that the draft contains provisions allowing for same-sex marriage. This belief apparently stems from the “fact” that the writers of this draft have failed to clearly define marriage as a union between two adults of opposite sexes.

Many Christian leaders argue that this leaves a loophole that could be exploited to allow homosexuals to form legal unions.

The third reason being given for being against the forthcoming draft constitution is that it fails to define when life begins, and thus allows for abortion. Many insist that the constitution must explicitly state that life begins at conception in order to protect the life of the unborn.

It is difficult to tell if the reasons advanced by these Christians coincides with those of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, but it seems clear that there is concurrence with the churches that the proposed constitution ought to be rejected if it does not address the issues raised above.

Indeed, in the case of many, it is a foregone conclusion that these issues will not be addressed and, therefore, their minds are made up to vote “No” at the referendum.

Concerning the issue of kadhi’s courts, there are even suggestions that there is a grand scheme by Muslims to take over power in this country by using Sharia law and practically forceful conversion of non-Muslims.

It can only be surmised that the source of these messages is the same one that insists that neglecting to mention that life begins at point X is tantamount to legalising abortion, and that ignoring same-sex relationships is the same as allowing them.

If even well educated Kenyans strongly believe these assertions to be true, what of their less exposed relatives in the village? These relatives look up to their “elite” to correctly interpret the draft for them, and to practically tell them how to vote come the referendum.

To put this discussion in perspective, it is important to assert here that there is as yet no ready draft constitution for submission to Kenyans in a referendum.

All we currently have is the revised harmonised draft constitution that was handed over to the Parliamentary Select Committee on the constitution by the committee of experts.

Additionally, we have a statement from the select committee indicating the areas in the draft they would like to see revised further in order to arrive at consensus in the political class.

There is simply no Parliamentary Select Committee draft constitution for debate by Kenyans. Purporting to take positions based on information being discussed in the media is at best premature, and at worst betrays an attitude dead set against any changes to the status quo in this country.

The “facts” as stated by the Christian right concerning the role of kadhi’s courts and gay marriages are in fact gross distortions of reality, and are only meant to instil fear in most non-Muslims and other conservatives in order to defeat the draft constitution.

The “concerns” being raised about abortion are similarly possible red herrings aimed at scuttling the whole review process. Clerics, philosophers and scientists are still grappling with the issue of the origin of life, and Kenyan clerics cannot purport to have received divine revelation about this.

It is true that “life” begins both at conception and at birth, depending on one’s definition of “life”. Some would even go as far as asserting that life does not begin or end, since the transmission of genetic material is a continuous process from one generation to another.

Either way, it is pointless to discuss when life begins when the issue at hand is why women are having abortions, and how to help reduce and eradicate them.

Kenyans should just wait for the draft constitution and interrogate it on its own merits, without unnecessary bigotry and prejudice. If it means ignoring the unsolicited advice from religious leaders, so be it.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine

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