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Michael Abrahams | Stop discrimination against unwed pregnant women

Published:Monday | May 30, 2016 | 12:15 AMMichael Abrahams

There is a local hospital I know of that takes a very keen interest in the sex lives of its staff, especially its nurses. A nurse told me that when she was interviewed for the job, she was asked about her views on fornication.
Last year, the nurses were presented with a letter informing them that fornication and adultery, among other transgressions, could result in ‘severe disciplinary action or even dismissal’, and were asked to sign the letter. Many did not. One nurse told me that that was the last straw for her and that she left the institution shortly afterwards.
Unmarried nurses who do become pregnant, not surprisingly, are subjected to severe pressure. Last year, a nurse who became pregnant out of wedlock was encouraged to leave. When she refused, she was instructed to stay home and was paid a basic salary, less than she would have earned had she remained on the ward.
I was also told recently of a teacher at a Corporate Area high school who got pregnant out of wedlock. Even though she is engaged, the hierarchy at the school restricted her interactions with students, limited her to activities such as the marking of papers, and cut her salary.
Yes, this is happening in the 21st century, and not just in Jamaica. Discrimination against, and social ostracism of, unwed pregnant women and single mothers is a global reality.
Unmarried pregnant women face discrimination in Japan, where the rate of pregnancy out of wedlock is only two per cent. This is not surprising, as these women are in the minority in that country. But in Jamaica, where more than 80 per cent of us are born out of wedlock, there are still pockets of discrimination.
In the United States, while lawsuits have been filed by women who have been terminated for being pregnant outside of marriage, the Republican Party is pushing a bill known as the First Amendment Defence Act, which would allow individuals or corporations to discriminate against anyone who does not conform to their religious beliefs, allowing them to terminate employees who get pregnant outside of wedlock.
And it can get even worse. In some cultures, unmarried women who engage in sexual activity or become pregnant are at risk of becoming victims of honour killings, usually by male relatives such as their brothers or even their fathers, as they are deemed to have brought shame on their families.
Motherhood out of wedlock is seen by some as a threat to social structure and evidence of sexual immorality. But discrimination against these women may create barriers regarding employment and housing, and negatively affect their well-being. Many unwed mothers are in common-law relationships, but many also end up raising their children alone, without the moral and financial support of the fathers.
To terminate or decrease remuneration to woman who is unmarried and pregnant is insensitive and vindictive. This is a time when the woman will acquire more financial responsibilities, and to put her out of work or reduce her income at this time amounts to cruelty, as it affects her not just economically, but psychologically as well.
Also, when a mother’s financial status is diminished, it has the potential to adversely affect her child, a vulnerable human being who had no choice in being here and did not ask to be placed in such a position.
Another issue with such policies is that they present glaring gender bias. Men who are sexually active outside of marriage and impregnate women are subjected to far less scrutiny. Even if they are threatened with similar action, they can deny being fathers to be. Women, on the other hand, have uteri, which have a tendency to enlarge, eventually giving them away. Indeed, at the hospital I mentioned above, I was informed of a male worker who impregnated a woman outside of marriage, and came under absolutely no pressure from the hospital administration.
The sex lives and reproductive behaviours of employees should be of no concern to employers, once they conduct themselves appropriately at the workplace and perform at expected levels. It is widely believed and accepted that it is in the best interest of children for them to be born in marital units and raised as part of nuclear families, the benefits being social, psychological and economic.
But this is the ideal. There are persons I know who grew up in single-parent or common-law households whose childhoods were happier and more balanced than some who were raised in homes by parents who were married.
Love and intimacy are human needs, and are often intertwined with sexual expression. There are many women I know who would love to be married. But finding a suitable partner in my country today can be a challenge. For a single woman to find a male life partner who is single, straight, intelligent, educated and employed (five basic criteria) can be a frustrating task.
These women desire intimacy and affection as well, and are only human. They should not be vilified. If their pregnancies were unplanned, counselling regarding reliable family-planning methods going forward would be appropriate, rather than punishment and shaming.

-Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.