(Updates with background on previous suspension in para 18,19)
By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, Nov 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenya has banned the international charity Marie Stopes from offering abortion services to women and girls after complaints it was promoting the termination of unwanted pregnancies, the government and charity officials said on Monday.
Abortions are not permitted in Kenya unless a woman’s life or health is in danger and emergency treatment is required.
The Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board (KMPDB) said it had acted after the public, pro-life campaigners and the Kenya Film Classification Board complained that Marie Stopes radio adverts promoted abortions - a claim the charity denies.
“Marie Stopes Kenya is hearby directed to immediately cease and desist offering any form of abortion services in all its facilities within the Republic of Kenya,” KMPDB said in a letter to Marie Stopes Country Director Dana Tilson dated Nov. 14.
The charity - which provides family planning, counselling, emergency abortions and post-abortion care to thousands of women and girls - said its campaign promoted awareness about unsafe abortions.
“At no point did we promote abortions,” marketing director Christopher Wainaina told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Our media campaign talks about the legal status of abortion in Kenya, the stigma of abortion that exists and how it is leading to high numbers of women becoming victims of botched backstreet abortions and dying as a result.”
Almost half a million abortions were conducted in Kenya in 2012 - mostly in backstreet clinics - with one in four women and girls suffering complications such as high fever, sepsis, shock and organ failure, said a February health ministry report.
An estimated 266 women die per 100,000 unsafe abortions in Kenya - higher than rates estimated in other east African nations, it added.
Campaigners warned that the ban on Marie Stopes could hit victims of backstreet abortions who desperately need emergency treatment.
“There aren’t many places for women to go in that situation - many would rather die than go to a government hospital because of the stigma and discrimination they face,” said Evelyne Opondo, Africa Director for the Center for Reproductive Rights.
“I think many girls and women could lose their lives due to this ban. Those who do not lose their lives may end up with life-long disabilities due to no proper treatment.”
Government hospitals are the main provider of safe abortions, but are often overstretched.
Campaigners said authorities, influenced by powerful Christian organisations, were making it harder for women to access safe abortions.
Since 2010, the ministry of health has withdrawn essential guidelines on conducting safe abortions and banned health workers from training on abortion.
The KMPDB also reprimanded the charity for contravening advertising rules for medical practitioners, and ordered it to file weekly reports on all services provided in its 23 clinics across the country for the next 60 days.
Wainaina said Marie Stopes - which has operated in Kenya for over three decades - was working with the KMPDB and the ministry of health to seek clarity on the issues raised in the letter and hoped to find a resolution soon.
This is not the first time Marie Stopes - which works in 37 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America as well as the United States - has faced a suspension.
A British watchdog in 2016 suspended the charity from performing abortions on under-18s and vulnerable women, and suspended abortions under general anaesthetic after raising concerns over patient care. (Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)