Editorial | Time to legalise abortion
We sense a tepidness in Christopher Tufton's call for a national dialogue on abortion, as though it's something about which he is uncertain, if not fears, and as if it is not his to initiate. Well, as the health minister, Dr Tufton has as much at stake in the matter as anyone else, and certainly more than most.
It is he in the Holness administration who has responsibility for the quality of health care received by Jamaicans, which includes the reproductive health of women, as well as the laws that regulate the way this care is delivered. As they now stand, the laws that govern reproductive health don't serve women well, not least for the fact they impinge on the right of women to control their own bodies.
Victoria Jubilee in Kingston is Jamaica's primary referral maternity hospital, which not only handles hundreds of births each year but numerous cases of pregnancy-related complications. Last week, the hospital's senior medical officer, Dr Orville Morgan, told this newspaper that in 91, or eight per cent, of 1,088 cases of early pregnancy haemorrhage treated at the institution during the first nine months of this year, the women admitted having attempted abortions. In another 47 cases, attempted abortions were also suspected. Put another way, overall, 13 per cent of the cases were likely to have been abortion-related.
Indeed, Dr Morgan revealed that a more rigorous study at Victoria Jubilee four years ago showed that 43 per cent of the cases of pregnancy-related complications seen by the hospital had to do with attempted abortion, although only 10 per cent of the women initially admitted the attempt. "Not everyone will come in and admit they attempted a termination of pregnancy," he said. Which, of course, is understandable.
Section 72 of Jamaica's largely anachronistic Offences Against the Person Act - the same one that criminalises buggery, even among consenting heterosexual couples - makes abortion, at any stage, illegal, for which the woman, or anyone who performs the abortion, "guilty of felony, and, being convicted thereof, shall be liable to be imprisoned for life, with or without hard labour". Persons who supply the means for an abortion to a woman can be jailed for up to three years.
As this newspaper has argued before, it shouldn't be anyone's business if a woman decides to end a pregnancy, if the procedure is done by qualified health professionals; that the termination happens within a defined time frame established on the basis of safety and scientific evidence related to when a foetus is viable; and once the woman has received counselling.
POOR WOMEN SUFFER
As it is now, the law removes from all women the right and freedom of choice and the fundamental right to their own bodies. It also does something else: it entrenches and reinforces social, class and economic prejudices and privileges. It would be an easily winnable bet, we believe, that most of the women who found themselves at Victoria Jubilee with abortion-related complications are from the lower socio-economic strata; in other words, it is poor women with the least education who undergo risky procedures.
For, while abortion is illegal, it is largely accessible in a safe environment to well-educated middle- and upper-class women who can afford to pay health professionals. They are unlikely to end up at Victoria Jubilee.
Dr Tufton's ordering of an audit of abortion-related cases at public institutions - including the availability of education, family planning and adoption services - is OK. What is of greater urgency, in the circumstance, is the proposed debate on the abortion law, on which he ought not to be neutral.
The fundamentalists will make loud, unscientific claims of life-at-conception and of the personhood of the foetus and try to conflate religious morality with obligations of a secular state. Unlike the gay-rights issue, this a matter that should be of little moment to politicians. It carries little currency at the ballot box. Of greater concern is the fact that this law contrives to ensnare many young women in a cycle of poverty. And it is discriminatory.