This past week was mostly spent in the field, traversing dusty roads in the rural towns of Kakamega County to visit intervention facilities with Ipas Africa Alliance staff. During visits, staff offer training and follow-up support to healthcare providers and community health volunteers (CHVs) who are implementing Ipas’ Choice for Change (C4C) project, which seeks to increase uptake of contraceptives among sexually active young people and lower high rates of adolescent pregnancy. The causes of these high rates are diverse and include a lack of access to education, poverty, child marriage, sexual abuse, and difficulties accessing reproductive health services due to stigma and a lack of reproductive commodities and training within the health sector (National Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Policy, 2015; Godia, Alenja, Hofman & Van Den Broek, 2014). These communities are often very religious, and nearly every site visit began with a prayer asking God to guide our time together and their work in the community.
During these visits, I conducted in-depth interviews with providers and CHVs to document their experiences and feedback on the C4C project. Laying under my mosquito net at night looking over notes from this week’s interviews, I was moved by people’s commitment to the health and well-being of the women and girls they serve:
“When they (the youth) are given the service (contraception), they feel so good. Before, when they would come I would tell them, ‘this is not for you.’ But this time I tell them, ‘this is for everybody’… They come knowing there is good assistance (here), so they are happy and I am also happy.”
– Nellie*, Hospital Nurse
“In my village, we have been having a lot of early pregnancy, and most are below 15 years old… they don’t know that they’re pregnant and some try to procure an abortion. We even have cases of deaths secondary to abortions. If you try to inquire with the person who was accused of impregnating her, he says he doesn’t know… They call me the matron of the street children. I go up to them and talk to them. I find out if they are pregnant or could become pregnant. I counsel them on family planning.”
– Liza*, Community Health Volunteer (CHV)
As I reflected on their words, I thought about an article I’d read where Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion care provider in the United States, talked about Bible passage Luke 10:25-27 and the way in which his Christian faith compels him to help women seeking to end a pregnancy:
“… my breakthrough finally came when I listened to a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about what made the Good Samaritan good. The sermon that you know as the “Mountaintop Sermon,” the very last sermon that he preached on the night that he was assassinated—within that sermon, he described the very familiar story of the Good Samaritan who stopped to help someone who had been robbed and injured. Everybody passed that person by and refused to help. The Samaritan stopped and helped, and Dr. King said what made the Good Samaritan good was that person reversed the question of concern, whereas everybody else said, ‘What will happen to me if I stopped to help this person?’ The Samaritan asked, ‘What will happen to this person if I don’t stop to help him?’
As an OB/GYN seeing women, I saw myself in that story and became convinced that not only was it appropriate for me to care about the well-being of my patients, but I now had a moral imperative, if you will. It became to me more important to think about the well-being of my patients than what might happen to me for providing this care. So I had to see my religious understanding in a different way. I never had any desire to abandon Christianity.
And so what became more important to me in a conscious way was embracing the compassion and the moral obligation to respond to the need of your fellow human being than the judgment and the rigidity around interpreting isolated passage of sacred texts to leave you unable to respond to the needs of other people. And in my case, as a women’s health provider, the need that I felt most called to respond to was that of women with unplanned pregnancies when they asked me to safely end their pregnancy that they didn’t want or that they were unable to continue even if they wanted it” (Jezebel, 2017).
Half a world away, this same compassion seems to be what drives many of those on the front lines of helping Kenyan women and girls access life-enhancing and life-saving reproductive health services. This is especially critical in a context where violations of women’s and girls’ sexual agency and human dignity frequently go unpunished.
Not everyone is a Christian, nor do they need to be. Yet, the fact remains that many Christians feel God’s mandate to support people in their most vulnerable moments is what calls them to provide women and girls with access to reproductive health services- a powerful reality often left out of the pro-choice vs. anti-choice arguments. These reflections lead me to pose the questions, What if we replaced shame and stigma around adolescent sexuality, safe abortion, and contraception with a non-judgmental commitment to what civil rights activist Valarie Kaur calls revolutionary love? What would that world look like? What would that mean for the quality of life of women and girls all over the world- for all people?
We must challenge the false dichotomy between reproductive rights and Christianity. Whether it’s rural western Kenya or the rural southern U.S., we cannot ignore the role that the Christian faith has had and continues to have in shaping people’s world views on controversial topics like abortion and contraception. We must advocate for the fact that helping people who face a pregnancy they can’t continue or adamantly don’t want, is a life-affirming act. How could we argue otherwise knowing the damage to women’s and girls’ dignity and health that follows when these services are denied? In the words of the good Samaritan, “What will happen to this person if I don’t stop to help her?”
This Easter Sunday, many Christians will post pious words on social media, or talk about how grateful they are that Jesus died for the sins of all humankind. There’s nothing wrong with this necessarily, but how many of us will also have the courage to daringly live-out Jesus Christ’s legacy of revolutionary love? How many of us will do what our heart tells us is right, even when this is difficult or unpopular within our faith communities?
I deeply believe that I have a moral imperative to support this work, grounded in my love for God and the world around me. The testimonies of Christians like Nellie, Liza, and Dr. Parker assure me that I am not the only one.
*Not respondent’s real name. All respondents gave written consent to be interviewed and for their quotes to be shared.