Mon | Nov 19, 2018

Peter Espeut | So much ethical illiteracy

Published:Friday | November 10, 2017 | 12:00 AM
A woman holds a fetus doll in the palm of her hand.

It must be clear to everyone by now that Jamaica has a national sexual crisis on our hands. Over an eight-year period, from 2007 to 2015, approximately 16,790 reports of sexual abuse against children were recorded by the Office of Children Registry. It is likely that thousands of other cases of sexual abuse went unreported.

It is illegal in Jamaica for a man to have sexual intercourse with a girl under 16 years old, and yet the 2008 UNICEF Reproductive Health Survey found that the average age at first intercourse for females age 18-19 years old was 15.8 - below the age of consent; and for those 15-17 years old, the average age at first intercourse was 14.4 years - well below the age of consent. Remember, this is an average, so, statistically, there will be as many below the mean as above it.

This week's Sunday Gleaner revealed that between January and September of this year, of the 1,088 expectant mothers who presented to the Victoria Jubilee Hospital (VJH) with bleeding in early pregnancy, 91 admitted to having attempted to abort their unborn child, while an additional 47 had complications that suggested that they had attempted abortions. So 12.7 per cent of expectant mothers at VJH had failed in their effort to kill the human life growing inside them. But how many were successful?

In the Sunday Gleaner report, the senior medical officer at VJH estimated that about 10 per cent of pregnancies in Jamaica end up in successful abortions. Since about 36,000 babies are born in Jamaica every year, this would mean that there are about 4,000 abortions in Jamaica annually, or about 11 unborn children killed here every day of the year.

These social phenomena are related: Early initiation into sexual intercourse (1), often through sexual abuse (2), sometimes results in pregnancies that lead to abortions (3), some of which are botched (4).

Are these phenomena socially or economically problematic? Those who hold a certain set of values might say no. Let the children begin having sex early: Tell them about it in school, with all the variations and combinations, and hand out condoms and pills in school at government's expense. If anyone gets a sexually transmitted infection (STI), arrange for them to be treated at government's expense; and if anyone gets pregnant, arrange for them to be able to get abortions at govern-ment's expense.

People must be free to enjoy themselves without having to face the inevitable consequences of their actions. Some may recognise this as the hedonistic or libertarian approach to sexuality, which many in Jamaica advocate.

There are others who see early sexual initiation with its inevitable result of STIs, teenage pregnancy, and botched abortions, as a suite of serious social problems, requiring a holistic suite of solutions. The message cannot be that a way must be found for us to be free to scratch our every itch, while avoiding the responsibility that goes along with freedom.

Every student of sociology learns that norms and values - sometimes in concert and sometimes conflicting - underlie all human decisions and actions, whether consciously or unconsciously. Man - above all else - is an ethical being. This separates the human from the purely animal.




Responding on Nationwide FM earlier this week to the phenomenon of botched abortions, Christopher Tufton, Jamaica's minister of health, asserted: "Clearly, we have a public health issue. So, it is not a moral argument. It's really about how to protect the life of individuals, in this case pregnant mothers."

Minister Tufton is clearly not as well educated as I thought. For him, something cannot be both a public health issue and a moral issue at the same time; it must be one or the other. It is the height of ethical illiteracy to state that abortion is not a moral issue.

Minister Tufton is right about one thing: "It's really about how to protect the life of individuals," but there is more than one individual at issue here. The slogan of the pro-abortion activists is "A woman must have the right to determine what she does with her own body." Therefore, they argue, she should be allowed to kill her unborn child. But the child in the womb is a human being quite different from the mother, with different DNA, with a different heart pumping oftentimes, a different blood type.

Botched abortions are a public health issue, and so is unprotected sex, but they are also moral issues subject to moral analysis. What we want are holistic solutions to social problems, not facile piecemeal stopgap measures.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to