Carolyn Cooper, Contributor
In Jamaica today, a woman who ends up in hospital as a result of complications from an illegal abortion can actually be handcuffed to her bed as a suspected felon. Upon conviction of inducing abortion, she may be condemned to life sentence with hard labour. That's the law.
If you don't believe it, here's Section 72 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1864. That's right. This outdated law is almost a century and a half old!
"72. Every woman, being with child, who with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent; and whosoever, with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall unlawfully administer to her, or cause to be taken by her, any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, shall be guilty of felony, and, being convicted thereof, shall be liable to be imprisoned for life, with or without hard labour.
"73. Whosoever shall unlawfully supply or procure any poison or other noxious thing, or any instrument or thing whatsoever, knowing that the same is intended to be unlawfully used or employed with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and, being convicted thereof, shall be liable to be imprisoned for a term not exceeding three years, with or without hard labour."
In plain English: If a pregnant woman tries to abort the foetus in her own body, she is guilty of a felony and, if convicted, is liable to be imprisoned for life. If anyone attempts to help her with the abortion, that person is also guilty of a felony and is liable to be similarly sentenced. Even a medical doctor! Whoever supplies any 'noxious thing' and even the bearer of the thing to facilitate the abortion are both liable to be imprisoned.
DAY OF THE 'FREE WOMB'
Two Saturdays ago, feminists - both female and male - gathered in Emancipation Park to mark Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion. In 1990, during the Fifth Feminist Meeting of Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Argentina, September 28 was chosen as the day for the decriminalisation of abortion in the region.
That date commemorates stages in the abolition of slavery in Brazil. The Rio Branco Law of September 28, 1871 ('the Law of Free Birth') freed all children born to enslaved parents. The Saraiva-Cotegipe Law (also known as 'the Law of Sexagenarians') of September 28, 1885, freed enslaved adults when they reached the age of 60. This significant date in Brazilian history is known as the day of the 'free womb'.
Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. It was not until 1888 that enslaved Africans were finally emancipated. In the case of Jamaica, the black woman's womb was fully freed in 1838 - in theory. In actuality, our oppressive anti-abortion law continues to trap women in reproductive slavery. Furthermore, the backward move to enshrine foetal rights in the Jamaican Constitution means, in effect, that the lives and health of women are conceived as less important than protection of the foetus.
Jamaica's 1864 Offences Against the Person Act was passed a mere 30 years after the abolition of slavery. All of a sudden, a foetus (not a 'child') was much more valuable than millions of enslaved Africans who were seen as beasts of burden and, therefore, entirely fit subjects for protracted abuse. Their lives needed no protection. An unborn 'person' now had more rights than actual persons, many of whom still had vivid memories of being brutalised by enslavement.
Did this act have any moral authority? Or was it intended to ensure the availability of an unending supply of cheap labour? These questions are not as far-fetched as they may seem. Historians confirm that enslaved African women aborted foetuses or even committed acts of infanticide in order to ensure that their children would not be enslaved. Ironically, enslaved women claimed reproductive freedoms that their supposedly emancipated descendants are still denied in Jamaica today.
A FEMINIST PRIME MINISTER
It took more than a century for Jamaica's outdated abortion laws to be modified. In 1975, the Ministry of Health, in a Statement of Policy on Abortion, made it "lawful for a registered medical practitioner acting in good faith to take steps to terminate the pregnancy of any woman if ... he forms the opinion that the continuation of the pregnancy would be likely to constitute a threat to the life of the woman or inure [work] to the detriment of her mental and physical health".
The Statement of Policy called for amendment of the Offences Against the Person Act (1864) in order to clarify the circumstances in which abortion could be deemed lawful in Jamaica - such as in cases of rape, carnal abuse, and incest. Almost 40 years later, the antiquated act has still not been amended.
What are we waiting for? A feminist prime minister who will take the bull by the horns? And it is bull. Mulish men who cannot get pregnant have the nerve to insist on policing women's bodies. And equally mulish women demand that other women surrender control over their own bodies.
Women and men in Latin America and the Caribbean have been mobilising for the last two decades to demand that their governments:
Anti-abortion laws have never prevented abortions; they have only made abortion unsafe. Data from the Ministry of Health confirm that approximately 1,200 women are treated each year for complications arising from risky abortions. And that's just at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI). The number of cases at the Kingston Public Hospital (KPH) is top secret, it seems. In the 21st century, women in Jamaica are still gambling with their lives in order to claim reproductive rights that women in other countries simply take for granted. It's time to make abortion a far less dicey option.
Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.