Many years ago, my girlfriend and I had an abortion. Yes, WE had sex, WE got pregnant and WE terminated the pregnancy.
It was in the late 1990s. My girlfriend and I were young and deeply in love. We were just starting our first jobs. We had our futures neatly mapped out in big dreams. We were going to grow in our careers. Travel around the world. Secure and furnish our first apartment. We fantasized about the pleasures of young adulthood and the joys of living alone. Pregnancy, children and marriage were not in the matrix.
As I listened to her sob on the phone, I didn’t know what to say. All of my life’s experience had been trained on the exuberance of charming and wooing a lady, not comforting a pregnant 23-year-old. A future that had looked so promising was suddenly enveloped in gloom.
For three days we agonised over our options. Every time, we came to the same conclusion. We were not ready to be parents. We lacked the mental, social, financial and physical will to be parents. We were consumed by fears and anxieties.
Becoming parents then would have foreclosed all our options because it would have meant stopping work for her, confronting angry parents, the church and society.
The stigma of a pregnancy out of wedlock would have killed her. My life, too, would have been disrupted but not as horribly as hers. My girlfriend and I made the decision to terminate the pregnancy at nine weeks. It was a call for self-preservation. A decision that I still believe was the best in the circumstances. We were fortunate.
Quality abortion care
We were fortunate because we could access quality abortion care and had a strong network of older friends who supported us through the ordeal.
My girlfriend and I were not the first or last young people in the quandary of unwanted pregnancy. Nor were we the first or last to procure an abortion.
Abortions are the most public secret on campus and thereafter. Trouble is the systemic barriers that forced my girlfriend and I into secrecy back in the day are the same ones in evidence today.
First, the sanctimonious prejudices. “Only bad girls get pregnant,” we were told. They should not have sex. If a girl got pregnant, it was her fault, together with her mother. The mother had not taught her to be a good girl.
Now she was a loose girl, although yesterday she may have been the apple of her father’s eye. Never mind that the father did nothing to protect his apple. He did not make her any wiser, while all along he gloated about her. And at her most vulnerable moment, he disowned his apple — and the mother. They had brought him shame.
Then, like now, the statistics told horrendous tales. Children far younger than we were having sex. Many of them were being defiled by adults, in many cases close family members supposed to be their protectors.
And all society has done is bury heads in the sand and engage in the same defeating tactics—denial (it is not happening), pontificating (it should not happen) and buck-passing (it’s some else’s responsibility).
While we soothe our conscience with escapist denial, Kenya’s teen pregnancy was the third-highest in the world in 2019, according to the respected Global Childhood Report. Meanwhile, a staggering 20,000 girls in the country seek care for abortion related complications every year. And unsafe abortion remains the leading cause of maternal mortality and morbidity, especially among girls aged below 20.
At the time that my girlfriend and I procured an abortion, a number of our friends were caught up in the same predicament as ours. With less opportunities at their disposal, some went to the backstreet.
It was not always a happy ending, as some of the women are still living with scars. Others lost their lives or had their wombs removed to save their lives after developing complications from unsafe abortions.
Of course these people did not intend to have the pregnancies, just like we did not intend our pregnancy to happen. Forty-six percent of all pregnancies among adolescents in sub-Saharan African are not intended, according to the US-based Guttmacher Institute, a leading global researcher in reproductive health. But they still happen, with all the attendant dilemmas and crises. Among the crises is, of course, death.
Major public health concern
According to the WHO, unsafe abortion remains a major public health concern worldwide. Every year, at least 22 million women are having unsafe abortions globally. Each year in Kenya, over 3,000 women die of unsafe abortion-related complications and half a million more suffer short and long-term morbidities. It is time to end this hypocrisy. Abortion is not a moral issue; it is a public health issue.
Those who are piously quick to condemn the young people risking their lives to procure unsafe abortions need to be honest about what they mean when they say they value the sanctity of life, because life is messy, imperfect and complicated.
Life is where sex happens, life is where unwanted and unplanned pregnancies happen, life is where abuse happens and life is where abortions happen. You can’t romanticise the unborn and use them as a mascot for your bigotry, while ignoring women and girls living actual life. If we, as a society, are really pro-life, then we must work together to prevent unwanted pregnancies that lead to unsafe abortions.
Fourteen million adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 in low- and middle-income countries would like to prevent, delay, or avoid pregnancy, yet they are not using any form of modern contraception, according to the World Population Data Sheet, 2021.
We, fathers, can’t and shouldn’t be spectators in the ruin of our daughters’ lives. We must provide them with contraceptives and arm them with comprehensive sexuality and reproductive health education. We must teach them how to make responsible sexual decisions and how to take care of their bodies.
Could there ever be a higher demonstration of a father’s love than bringing down the barriers that cost the lives of thousands of girls every year?
Protecting our families starts with protecting our daughters. And this protection must extend to our sons, too. As we teach them to be men we must teach them to respect women and girls, to not use sex as a weapon but as a valued form of intimacy shared between consenting adults.
It is time for us as fathers to bring our heads out of the sand to do our duty to our daughters by holding their hand without being selective on where and when. Matters of girls’ sexual and reproductive health have for too long been treated as women’s affair in which men are involved only as participants in—and often originators of—the circumstances that create the crises. In this, men choose when to love their daughters and when not to. They are only fair weather fathers.
When the girls get into the tempests of abortion and the attendant complications, fathers abandon them. It is truly tragic that we abandon our daughters when they most need us. We need to call ourselves back to fatherly order and responsibility.
I know that many of you would think that this is not my story to tell. This, after all, did not happen to my body. But it happened to someone I loved and after talking it over with her yesterday as the world celebrated the World Population Day, we agreed that it is important that more boyfriends and husbands, usually silent participants in abortions, share their perspectives.
Dr Galava is a former managing editor with the Nation and Standard and is currently a consultant with the World Bank [email protected]