Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Francine Derby | Abort Zika threat

Published:Friday | July 29, 2016 | 7:00 AM

Whether we term it 'dash weh belly', 'abortion' or 'termination of pregnancy', the conversation around this issue has taken place among various groups in Jamaica and internationally. This argument has once again gained traction because of the emergence of the Zika virus and the implications that the virus has for expectant mothers.

Jamaica's current legal position on abortion can be found in sections 72 and 73 of the Offences Against the Person Act. Section 72 criminalises the act of a woman who takes any poison or noxious substance or who uses any instrument or other means with the intent of procuring a miscarriage. This section also criminalises the act of anyone who unlawfully administers any substance to a woman, or uses any instrument on her, intending to procure a miscarriage, whether or not the woman is with child. A person committing an act under this section may be liable to life imprisonment.

Section 73 criminalises the acts of persons who supply a substance or instrument to a woman, knowing that she intends to use it to procure a miscarriage. If proven guilty, these persons will be liable to imprisonment for up to three years.

Jamaica's general cultural position on abortion seems to coincide with our legal position, with a significant portion of the population supporting the current laws. A 2014 Gleaner-commissioned Bill Johnson poll showed that 69 per cent of 1,208 respondents believe that the laws regarding the termination of pregnancy should not be changed.

 

ABORTION AND ZIKA

 

While Jamaicans are no strangers to mosquito-borne diseases, Zika comes with a frightening complication that cannot be ignored. Scientists have discovered a very strong correlation between pregnant women carrying the virus and microcephaly, a condition which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and high risks of brain damage. Medical professionals have all but confirmed a direct link, with Zika-affected countries immediately having staggering increases in microcephaly cases.

Despite calls for the relaxation of abortion laws, most countries - Jamaica included - have not adjusted their position. Locally, of the 44 confirmed Zika cases, seven are pregnant women.

On July 19, Member of Parliament Dr Dayton Campbell called on the Jamaican Government to consider making abortion services available to expectant mothers who are confirmed to be carrying a baby with microcephaly. He noted that an ultrasound is able to detect an abnormally small head (a telltale symptom of microcephaly) fairly early in a pregnancy and dismissed Health Minister Christopher Tufton's claims that the disease is only detectable late in pregnancies or after birth.

Dr Campbell is supported by the Medical Association of Jamaica, which agrees that termination of pregnancy services should be made available in these circumstances.

 

ATTORNEY GENERAL'S RESPONSE

 

Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte, in a recent tweet, scolded Dr Campbell, stating that as a legislator he ought to propose an amendment to the law, not advocate for the law restricting abortion to be broken, and urged him to read the Jamaican Constitution.

In response, Dr Campbell noted that legal abortions are carried out in Jamaica according to medical exceptions, and queried whether Zika should be treated as such.

It should be noted that Dr Campbell did not call for the laws to be broken, but rather, a change in the law to give women the right to choose. Dr Campbell has, in the past, made his pro-choice position known and continues to use his platform to advocate for a woman's right to choose.

 

DRAWING THE LINE

 

Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in response to Dr Campbell's statements, has posed the question, "Where do you draw the line?"

At one end of the continuum, the position is that no woman should terminate or seek to terminate a pregnancy at any time, despite the circumstances. More towards the middle is the position that pregnancies should only be terminated in dire circumstances, be it medical complications for the mother or child, or where the pregnancy is as a result of rape or incest. On the other end, there is the position that a woman's right to choose is absolute and should not be the subject of restrictions.

Bearing our cultural background in mind and the current reality of the Zika virus, Dr Campbell's position is not only progressive, but is also a necessary catalyst for women's rights in Jamaica.

A relaxation of the laws for women who are confirmed to be carrying babies with microcephaly should be a given. The line can be drawn here for now. An unfettered relaxation of the laws may never be a reality, but the Government ought to keep the sexual and reproductive health and rights of our women in mind at all times.

- Francine Derby is a member of the Policy and Advocacy Committee of the Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.