Michael Abrahams | Rein in Bishop Alvin Bailey
People often ask me why I write so much about religion. The truth is that religion has always fascinated me, from the days when I was a Christian until now, years after I have walked away from the faith. In my youth, the fascination stemmed from me being successfully indoctrinated into a belief system I was told was the only true pathway to salvation. Today, what fascinates me is not only how religion influences human behaviour, but also how it can be a barrier to empathy, critical thinking, justice, and fairness.
An example of my concern regarding some of the hurdles religion presents arose last week when Bishop Alvin Bailey, vice-president of the Jamaica Association of Evangelicals, made a rude and disrespectful remark regarding one of our government ministers, when he called on Prime Minister Andrew Holness to “rein in” the individual for simply expressing her view on our abortion laws.
The lawmaker, Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn, is minister of state in the Ministry of Health and Wellness. In 2018, she tabled a motion in the House of Representatives for the Government to consider relaxing the abortion laws to ensure that women have access to safe abortions. Recently, in response to the legalisation of abortion in Argentina in December 2020, Cuthbert-Flynn, who is also member of parliament for the St Andrew West Rural constituency, said, “The win for Argentina is a huge win for Latin American countries and also our Caribbean islands who have not updated their laws, and I think, in Jamaica, we need to now look at what is happening. It is an issue that we must tackle.” She added, “My views have remained the same. I think we need to be more progressive in our thoughts. I think we need to definitely change the laws. The laws have been there for a while, we have been trying to change them. Several ministers have tried to do so, without success.”
Reverend Bailey’s pompous request for Cuthbert-Flynn to be “reined in” is ridiculous and unreasonable on many levels. First, Cuthbert-Flynn is a human being with a functioning brain and is entitled to have an opinion and share it. Second, she is a woman, and abortion is an issue that affects women. Third, not only has she borne children, but she also had an abortion (carried out when she was affected by a tumour in her brain at age 19), and therefore can speak about the procedure from experience. Fourth, she is minister of state in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, and abortion is a women’s health issue. The World Health Organization’s definition of health is, “The state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, which is marked not only by the absence of disease or infirmity.” Pregnancy has the potential to affect not only a woman’s physical, mental, and social well-being, but her emotional and financial well-being as well. Religious leaders and church folk who are anti-abortion are quick to inform us that abortion is a “moral issue”. That may or may not be so. What is undeniable, however, is that abortion is a women’s health issue. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Cuthbert-Flynn has every right to express her opinion. According to Bailey, Cuthbert-Flynn’s pro-choice stance has “flown in the face of God and Christianity”. Bailey is entitled to his religious beliefs, but Jamaica is not a theocracy. His comments exemplify the arrogance and sense of entitlement that far too many, but thankfully not all, religious leaders exhibit. They feel that not only are they entitled to their opinions, but that their opinions trump those of others because they speak for God.
While Bailey focuses on attempting to censor Cuthbert-Flynn, he is missing the bigger picture, which is the well-being of females of reproductive age in our country. The state minister is not calling out for woman to go out and have abortions. Instead, what she is advocating for is the repeal of Sections 72 and 73 of the Offences Against the Person Act, which makes abortion illegal, and substitute it with a civil law, The Termination of Pregnancy Act, which was recommended by the Abortion Policy Review Group in 2007. Her motive for decriminalising the procedure is to provide safe options for women who do not wish to continue their pregnancies, and in doing so, lessen the likelihood of them going underground and suffering the consequences of botched procedures, which is a significant contributing factor to maternal morbidity and mortality.
There must be a pushback against Bailey and others like him. They need to learn to be respectful of the points of view of others. Abortion is, and will likely always be, a contentious issue. Rational, honest, and empathetic discourse must be facilitated if we genuinely wish to act in the best interest of our girls and women.