30+ Caribbean women’s groups call for decriminalisation of abortion
The undersigned social justice and women’s organisations and individual advocates note the Jamaican parliamentary consultations under way on the law on abortion.
We encourage Jamaica to follow the example of other countries within CARICOM, which have led the way with legislation that decriminalises the termination of pregnancy – Barbados (1983) and Guyana (1995). As well, Belize, St Lucia, and St Vincent and the Grenadines have expanded the exceptions that allow for abortion under the criminal law.
Access to safe termination of pregnancy is a social justice and human rights issue.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), unsafe abortions make up 20 per cent of all maternal deaths globally. Women between the ages of 15 and 49 in Latin America and the Caribbean have a rate of unsafe abortions of 41 per 1,000 women, the highest globally. Seventy per cent of all unsafe abortions in the Caribbean are carried out on women below 30 years old.
In desperation, poor women, adolescent girls and young women seek abortion from unqualified persons, often in unhygienic environments. Some of the methods and implements used to induce miscarriages include: inserting bicycle spokes into the uterus; douching with bleach or hot Dettol; ingesting hot stout with quinine tablets; ingesting Cytotec, an over-the-counter drug which results in haemorrhaging; and having a ‘massage’ by a village midwife.
Data for the Caribbean indicate significant numbers of women and girls seek emergency treatment at public hospitals annually for the health complications of backstreet abortions, which include sepsis and haemorrhage.
Many others do not seek early medical intervention and suffer infertility, fistulae, pelvic inflammatory disease, chronic pelvic pain later on, and even death. In Jamaica, we understand, unsafe abortions are one of the leading causes of maternal mortality.
Women and girls of the middle and upper class are able to afford to pay for abortions conducted by gynaecologists and general practitioners under sanitary conditions in private medical clinics.
The law, therefore, in its actual effect, discriminates against poor women. They are forced to make choices that they may otherwise not make if public health facilities guaranteed services for termination on the basis of informed consent and confidentiality.
Many women have abortions for unwanted pregnancies for a range of reasons in the context of their life realities. Laws that criminalise abortion severely restrict decision-making by women in respect of their sexual and reproductive health.
Who can or should make a judgement for the person who will be carrying all the consequences of pregnancy and childbirth for the rest of their lives?
Yet those who oppose decriminalisation of abortion do just that. They insert their ideas of morality between women who have an unwanted pregnancy and their access to safe public health services.
right and freedom
Policy decisions on abortion must be consistent with fundamental rights and freedoms. The Jamaican Constitution guarantees the right to privacy and family life, which can only be restricted if the enjoyment of that right prejudices the rights and freedoms of others or the public interest.
Access to abortion does not affect the rights or legitimate interests of any other person, save the prospective father. His wishes, though important, ought not to supersede the woman’s, whose well-being and autonomy should be the primary consideration.
Forcing girls and women to have children when they are unprepared and/or unwilling, or forcing women to access unsafe abortion, with the consequential tragedies that result, cannot be in the public interest.
For those who have a strong religious point of view on abortion, this is to be respected. However, this should not be at the expense of the lives of women and girls, or their right to make reproductive decisions.
There is a global consensus that the human rights of women include their right to have control over, and decide freely and responsibly, the number, spacing and timing of their children and the right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence.
This has been upheld in the outcome documents of the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development and the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women and their follow-up conferences. Additionally, UN human rights treaty bodies have called on states to reconsider laws that criminalise abortion.
The State, therefore, has an obligation to ensure non-discriminatory access to termination of pregnancy for all, regardless of social status or income.
We congratulate the Jamaican parliamentarians and social justice advocates who have placed this issue on the legislative agenda. We urge the Jamaican Parliament to guarantee women’s enjoyment of their rights to equal treatment, privacy, integrity of the person, and non-discriminatory access to sexual and reproductive health rights and services.
Statement from several Caribbean women and organisations in support of women’s rights to non-discriminatory access to sexual and reproductive health rights and services in Jamaica. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com