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Conscience Magazine

Why Faith Matters: Part 2

By Callie Odula-Obonyo December 12, 2019

Our mother, an Anglican by faith, whispered one day to me, “Please, don’t play with boys to avoid falling pregnant before you complete your education.” That was her version of sex education to her preteen daughter, but none was given to my brothers. My first experience of unfortunate loss of life due to unsafe abortion was as a teenager in secondary school. We were sent to Catholic convent schools, as they offered affordable and high-quality education in Kenya. Daily early morning Mass was the norm at school.

…it is impossible to separate my faith from my professional role as a doctor.

One of our final-year seniors did not report back to school after the August vacation. Whispers along the corridors were that she had died after complications from an unsafe abortion. Our Irish headmistress, Sr. Philippine, and her staff swung into action and ushered all us girls from Form 1 to 4 into the school auditorium one afternoon and showed us the movie titled The Silent Scream, narrated by the late Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist and one-time advocate of legal abortion turned critic.

The room was soon in turmoil. We burst into tears and yet, for some reason, we weren’t permitted to discuss the issue amongst ourselves. Little did we understand that many physicians and abortion advocates at that time widely criticized this documentary as misleading and manipulative. This experience had an everlasting impression on me and was probably the commencement of my advocacy in discussions around the dreaded A-word: ABORTION.

Sex education or even information on contraception did not feature into our strict Catholic school curriculum, and this glaring reality hit home hard as these were taboo subjects.

During my postgraduate medical training in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Nairobi, we are posted for clinical work at the very busy national referral hospital Kenyatta National Hospital. A special ward created to handle all obstetrics and gynecology cases greatly reduced delays before lifesaving processes were commenced. Residents divided tasks among the staff. A large number of very ill young women needed surgery and antibiotics for septic and incomplete abortions, pelvic abscesses and septicaemia.

Many a time, we removed other implements, including crotchet needles and sticks, from pelvic cavities of young women who didn’t disclose that they were pregnant. Women presented so late and were weak. Quick decisions on saving a badly septic uterus or not had to be made.

My belief system guides my values at work, where I spend most of my waking hours, and motivates me to do what I do best.

I joined the Catholic faith just before marriage, and I say a silent prayer as I prepare for any surgical procedure and trust that the God I serve guides me through. I was very privileged to work with nursing and medical staff from different faiths, and I noted that we were not in conflict. I also realized that it is impossible to separate my faith from my professional role as a doctor. My belief system guides my values at work, where I spend most of my waking hours, and motivates me to do what I do best. My clients have faith too, and, as we discuss their care, I often conclude that the issues we cannot resolve we leave to a higher power.

My personal beliefs versus my professional responsibility are tested often, and this takes a great toll on me psychologically. The most difficult role I actually dreaded playing was the first day of post-operative period, either in the intensive care unit or the gynecology ward, when I had to answer questions like “Dr. Odula, I thank God for using you to save my life, but will I be able to get pregnant again when I am ready?”

As young ob-gyns working in the low-income areas of Kenya through an NGO, we realized that the cost for the procedure had to come down drastically to encourage potential clients to come straight to us. During my probation period, our director, in a brief encounter along the corridors, asked, “Dr. Odula, will you offer a safe abortion procedure to a woman who presents multiple times a year to our facility?” This to me was a difficult question at that time. I quickly composed myself, examined my conscience and replied, “Gladly, sir. I will, in addition, link her with a full range of services like contraceptive counseling and other reproductive health services. My role is as a provider and not judge.” I was retained as the resident ob-gyn.

Callie Odula-Obonyo
Callie Odula-Obonyo

Callie Odula-Obonyo is an obstetrician and gynecologist at the University of Nairobi and chair of Kenya’s Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW).