LETTER OF THE DAY - Abortion: an issue of human rights
THE EDITOR, Sir: Chair of the National Family Planning Board, Dr Sandra Knight, is right. The time has come to legalise abortions. More than 30 years of mulling over the issue is unproductive.
Section 72 of the Offences Against the Person Act is a potent and antiquated piece of legislation that has far-reaching effects on women. One result of the illegality of abortions is women obtaining unsafe abortions that can completely endanger all dimensions of their health. There is also a stigma attached. Terminating unwanted or potentially harmful pregnancies should not have a fatal or debilitating outcome.
We usually think about an abortion from the perspectives of it resulting in a foetus or potential child being murdered, the procedure as not in keeping with religious teachings, or it becoming a catalyst for sexual activity among the underage or irresponsible. But we ignore the implications for women of illegal abortions, which tend to happen in unsanitary facilities, using unconventional instruments, and applying techniques that are risk-filled.
As Amnesty International puts it, not having the option to undergo an abortion is not only an issue of public health but also human rights. A woman cannot truly be free if she does not have control over what happens to her body.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or the Bill of Rights of Women as it is sometimes called, says signatories "shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, access to health-care services, including those related to family planning". Jamaica is a signatory and has, in fact, ratified this convention. That being the case, the illegality of abortions is a form of institutionalised discrimination against the women prevented from procuring this service safely. Although it does not explicitly speak of abortion, the procedure goes hand in hand with family planning.
Promoting contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancy as a stand-alone alternative or solution is insufficient. And abortions being illegal has not stopped persons from having unprotected sex and there is no data to suggest that unprotected sex will increase if it becomes legal. The World Health Organisation says "the prevalence of unsafe abortions remains the highest in the 82 countries with the most restrictive legislations ... ." Unsafe abortion complications ultimately place avoidable pressure on the public-health system.
It would make sense that Jamaica follow the example of countries such as Barbados, which have liberalised their laws on abortions and have not recorded an increase in the amount of procedures. In Barbados, an abortion is only permitted if it is to save the life of the woman, preserve physical and mental health, if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, or if there is foetal impairment. Abortions are not given upon request and have to be authorised by a trained physician. Also, legalising abortions could assist Jamaica with decreasing its maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.