Yvonne McCalla Sobers | Abortion: whose decision?
Some church persons are using biblical teachings in an attempt to coerce the State into continuing to treat a woman as a criminal if she chooses to have an abortion. Scare tactics, backed up by horrific footage, have been used to equate abortion with murder.
These advocates have every right to influence the moral choices of their church members in particular, and the society in general. However, laws in a secular state need to apply equally to non-believers and believers (such as Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Revivalists, and Rastafarians).
On the other hand, women’s-rights advocates contend that neither Church nor State has the right to decide whether a woman should end a pregnancy. These groups see the State, in a secular democracy and not a theocracy, as having a duty to provide a woman with safe and legal options should she make difficult decisions about her womb and her life. The woman considering an abortion may or may not be a church member. She may be married or not. According to the Guttmacher Institute, between 2010 and 2014, the abortion rate was 35 per 1,000 married women and 26 per 1,000 unmarried women. The woman may or may not live in a society where the patriarchy still thinks it should control, if not own and use, women’s bodies.
What is certain is that the woman will be of child-bearing age – 15 to 44 years old – and has engaged or been forced into activity leading to a pregnancy. How she became pregnant is her business unless a crime was committed against her. If she is desperate enough to decide to have an abortion, she will find someone to do it or else do it herself. If she is affluent enough, she will find a medical professional willing to bypass the law to keep her medically safe, for a fee. Let us imagine a 19-year-old young woman called Ayanna. She is the first in her family to attend university, and she has relied on student loans to help her to complete her first two years of study. She is not prepared (socially, mentally, emotionally, or financially) to have and rear a child at this time.
Ayanna’s dilemma is complicated by her vow to herself not to bring an unwanted child into the world. She also does not see herself able to go through pregnancy and childbirth and then give away the infant. Putting the child in state care is out of the question for her, based on her personal experience of being placed in a State home. Further, she cannot afford a safe abortion and is aware that complications from an illegal and unsafe abortion can result in her becoming infertile or losing her life.
She understands that Jamaica’s mid-19th century anti-abortion law is similar to restrictive laws in Romania (between 1965 and 1989). As a result, during that time:
- the well-off Romanian women got safe abortions by bribing doctors.
- maternal mortality doubled, and an estimated 10,000 Romanian women died as a result of unsafe abortions.
- Romanian women were sent to prison for seeking or providing abortions.
- hundreds of unwanted Romanian children were discovered to be severely abused while in state care.
On the contrary, South African women have had access to legal and safe abortion since 1996. Between then and now, for example, maternal mortality in South Africa declined by 91 per cent.
Worldwide data show that criminalisation and severe restriction on abortion do not stop women from seeking abortion. On the contrary, it forces vulnerable and marginalised women to seek illegal and unsafe abortions. Research published by the Guttmacher Institute shows that
- an estimated 40 per cent of women experience complications for which they do not receive treatment.
- an estimated eight per cent of maternal deaths worldwide are from unsafe abortions that are also the third direct cause of maternal mortality in Jamaica.
- at least 22,800 women die each year from complications of unsafe abortion.
- in 2014, the annual cost of providing post-abortion care in developing countries was US$232 million.
In Jamaica, sections 72 and 73 of the 1864 Offences Against the Person Act say that women and their doctors can be charged with felonious assault for procuring or facilitating an abortion. If convicted of the offence, they can be imprisoned for life. For telling a woman where she could get an abortion, someone could be sent to prison for three years. Women who decide to end a pregnancy, therefore, need to overcome hurdles such as cost, access, fear, shame, guilt, secrecy, and silence. The roadblocks create delays that increase women’s risks.
Dr Affette McCaw-Binns, professor of reproductive health and epidemiology at the University of the West Indies, has pointed out ( Observer April 10, 2018) that unsafe abortion accounts for the third-leading cause of maternal death in Jamaica. The data show that a large number of women do not reach hospital when they have complications after botched abortions. However, data are incomplete because of the stigma attached to reporting an abortion, especially when complications occur.
Women like Ayanna need help that is unavailable under the outdated law. Replacing this law with a 2019 Termination of Pregnancy Act would be expected to provide women and medical personnel with
- comprehensive education related to sexual and reproductive health.
- relief from threat of imprisonment and criminal record for seeking or facilitating abortion.
- a climate in which abortion is accepted as a woman’s health decision and not as a crime.
- access to non-judgmental counselling so women and their families can see the implications of adoption, parenthood, termination, and state care.
- public and private facilities that enable vulnerable and marginalised women to exercise the option of safe and legal abortion.
- protection for medical personnel who refuse to be associated with abortions based on conscientious or religious objections.
It’s time for Jamaica to follow the example of countries like South Africa and enable women like Ayanna to make their best decisions about their wombs and their lives.