Sunday, April 25, 2010

It would serve the church well to be more tolerant

Sunday Nation 25 April 2010

Last week, the Kenyan Catholic Church hierarchy released a letter to their faithful titled “Stand up for Life!”, targeting the proposed constitution’s provisions on abortion and kadhis’ courts. The church expressed its reservations on abortion mainly on three stated grounds.

Firstly, that referring to the health of the mother is tantamount to “opening the doors to abortion on demand”. Secondly, that “trained health professional” is unclear, and may include a medical doctor, a clinical officer, a nurse, a mid-wife, a patient attendant or a traditional birth attendant. Thirdly, that the phrase “any other written law” is ambiguous and that “they” are not prepared to “allow Parliament and a majority of the counties to pass other laws on issues of life and death”.

The church, like any other body corporate in this country, has a right to meet and express its opinion on any matter they feel falls within their province. This inalienable right belongs equally to the churches, individual members of their congregations and other organisations. However, having expressed their opinion, they should, like other Kenyans, pause and listen to the voices of others who may hold contrary opinions.

In expressing their opinion, the church leaders have a duty to refrain from making statements that are inaccurate and would end up misleading their followers. For instance, the church’s opposition to inclusion of the phrase “health of the mother” is difficult to understand. By proposing to determine how doctors should intervene in cases involving the health of their patients, the church is arrogating to itself a role best left to professionals. These decisions are often made on a case-by-case basis, and the only interest in each case is the health of the patient.
Everything else is secondary, for that is what it means to take the Hippocratic Oath.

Conditions that pose a threat to the health of an individual often imply a risk of possible loss of life unless some intervention is instituted. No doctor in his right mind waits for pregnant women to terminate their pregnancies without sufficient reason. By insisting on this clause, the church seems to be indicating that the health of the mother is immaterial, and they would rather have a mother crippled or even killed by a pregnancy than consider terminating the pregnancy before it causes irreparable harm.

A condition such as eclampsia poses a significant threat to the health of a woman, and if left unattended, it would result in the death of the mother. Is the church insisting that such a woman be left to suffer until the doctors are sure she will almost certainly die before intervening? How would that point be determined?

Concerning the term “health professional”, the church should suggest alternative phraseology if indeed their objection is genuine. The word “health” has been well defined by the World Health Organisation, and there is no point repeating this. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary further defines a profession as “a job requiring special training or skill, especially one that needs a high level of education”. Arguing that hospital cleaners and clerks are health professionals is clearly disingenuous.

Further, it is demeaning to depict nurses, clinical officers and other health professionals as individuals who are so depraved that they are only waiting for the draft constitution to be enacted before they can open “abortion clinics”. On the involvement of Parliament and counties on “issues of life and death” this may come as news to the church hierarchy, but Parliament daily meddles in matters of life and death, including such issues as providing for the death sentence, war, food policy, health expenditure etc. The less that is said about this the better.

On the matter of kadhis’ courts, the church continues the argument that including them in the constitution is tantamount to elevating Islam above other religions in the country. They argue that these courts are privileges and the “beginning of discrimination”. The courts are established as part of the judiciary, not as a religious observance as is being depicted by the Christian right.

Apart from the fact the courts already exist in the current Constitution, the draft seems to even further clarify their role, providing that their mandate is limited to matters of personal law. The current Constitution uses the broader term “extend to”, which is obviously more liberal than what the draft proposes.

The role of a constitution is not to safeguard the majority but to protect the interests of the minorities. The majority can take care of their interests through regular elections and representation in Parliament. It would therefore serve the church well to be more tolerant and allow the views of professionals (on abortion) and fellow citizens (on kadhis’ courts) to be heard without threats and preconditions.

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

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