Sat | Aug 24, 2019

Editorial | Democratise right to abortion

Published:Sunday | October 28, 2018 | 12:00 AM

As Christopher Tufton, the health minister, suggests, there is no need to reinvent the wheel with regard to the debate on abortion in Jamaica. At least, not totally. Parliament already has sufficient information on which to act.

So, the existing provisions of the Offences Against the Person Act, which make it almost impossible for a woman to terminate a pregnancy under any circumstance, are anachronistic and cruel and should be repealed forthwith.

But unlike the health minister, this newspaper does not believe that there is need, at this time, for another round of long-drawn-out discussions of a report first tabled a decade ago by a joint parliamentary committee that looked into the issue. After all, this matter has been on the national agenda for more than four decades.

But our governments, of either party, intimidated by the fundamentalist Right and self-declared moralists, have cowardly recoiled from doing what is right. And the right thing in this regard is, having repealed Sections 72 and 73 of the Offences Against the Person Act, to introduce and pass a Woman's Choice of Pregnancy Bill, in keeping with the recommendations of an advisory group that was in 2005 asked to review the abortion policy.

That bill should, essentially, give a woman the right, after appropriate counselling, during the first three months of pregnancy, and thereafter if the termination, as determined by a physician, is necessary for the preservation of the life of the host of the mother.

Further, the bill should establish a regime under which the termination of pregnancies can take place, including the classes of medical professionals who can perform them, with the emphasis being on safety rather than hindrance.




This newspaper starts with the premise, as we have stated in the past, of a woman's right to her body and of control over her reproductive health - more so during that early period of pregnancy when the foetus is wholly unviable and without claim to the personhood that the commissars of morality and religious ideologues would impose upon it, in keeping with their creed of life at conception. Indeed, maintaining the legal status quo, or having a law that is more restrictive than we propose, would be acquiescing to groups whose strategies include trafficking in fear and exploiting ignorance, especially of the unknown, rather than rational, scientific discourse.

Further, even an adjustment to the existing law to allow abortion in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother, as was recommended by a joint parliamentary committee 10 years ago, would serve only to reinforce existing class and economic privilege. While abortion is illegal, it is safely and readily available to women who can afford to pay - which is mainly middle- and upper-class women. International health estimates are that more than 20,000 abortions are performed in Jamaica annually.

It is mainly women of lower socio-economic status, who can't afford safe but illegal abortions, who engage in risky procedures, either by themselves or with the help of backroom operators. They place their health at risk.

As Dr Tufton reported to Parliament last week, of 1,177 admissions to the Victoria Jubilee maternity hospital in 2016 for complications that threatened pregnancies, 47, or four per cent, of the patients admitted to attempts at abortion. The real figure, however, is likely to be higher - up to 15 per cent, by some estimates - but patients don't have to report their attempts at termination.

The bottom line: Now that Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn has put the matter of abortion on the agenda with her parliamentary motion calling for the decriminalisation of the termination of pregnancies, the Government should just get on with it by democratising the right.