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Zika threat sparks abortion debate

Published:Tuesday | February 2, 2016 | 12:00 AMJodi-Ann Gilpin
Dr Winston De La Haye

Dr Winston De La Haye, chief medical officer at the Ministry of Health, is discounting the possibility of abortions being considered in light of the rapid spread of the Zika virus in the Americas.

The ministry confirmed Jamaica's first case last Saturday.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported recently that a group of Brazilian lawyers, activists and scientists have decided to ask the country's supreme court to allow abortions for women who have contracted the virus.

De La Haye told The Gleaner, however, that the ministry's objective was to reduce, as much as possible, the number of persons who are infected.

"There's a lot that we don't know and very little that we know. What we know is that there has been an outbreak of a disease in some South American countries and we had our first case here in Jamaica. In Brazil, they have noted an association with, subsequent to the infection, children born with microcephaly, which is merely an association - it doesn't mean there's causation - and we have to be very careful about that," he said.

"I don't think we are at the stage to start having that debate. What we are trying to do is to ensure that we work feverishly to reduce the number of persons infected so as not to have that debate. When that debate comes, it comes, but I don't know that we have reached that point," De La Haye continued.

He added: "Categorically, abortion is illegal in Jamaica. Under the current common law, termination of pregnancy may be indicated under conditions that threaten maternal health or welfare. The law is on the books, and all gynaecologists and practitioners, by extension, are aware that not only the patient, but the persons carrying out the abortion, as well as anyone who has facilitated the abortion, are liable for prison."

Under the law, abortion is only permissible to save a woman's life or to preserve her physical or mental health. Also, the spouse's consent is required.

The prescribed punishment for anyone performing or even attempting the procedure is life imprisonment. This applies to the pregnant woman also.

Exceptions might

be required

In the meantime, The Reverend Dr Lenworth Anglin, former executive director of the Church of God in Jamaica, in sharing his personal views, said depending on the severity of the problem, an exception might be required.

"Although it (abortion) is illegal at the moment, I have to respect the law of the country, but recognise that this could become a crisis. Crisis situations require extreme measures, so I would have to accept the possibility of allowing abortion rather than have a child being born to face lifelong consequences," Anglin declared.

"I believe, however, that it cannot be an open-door opportunity. It will require careful planning where each case is analysed on its own merit. Both medical and spiritual counselling will be integral as well, but a crisis will have to be dealt with as a crisis," he said.

"I believe in a God who is compassionate and who understands the uncertainties of life even more than human beings. I believe we have to appeal to the compassionate heart of God," he said.