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Editorial | Whither abortion reform?

Published:Monday | March 23, 2020 | 12:15 AM

IT IS not clear whether Parliament’s Human Resources and Social Development Committee, which hasn’t had a sitting in recent months, has concluded its hearings on reforming the abortion law and, if it has, what it has recommended to legislators. Its chairman, Ronald Thwaites, will shed light on the matter, as well as informing the public how the committee intends to proceed.

Perchance they are not yet done deliberating, it is this newspaper’s hope that the committee will be inspired by last week’s developments on the matter in New Zealand, which finds its way in their report, and embraced by Jamaica’s legislators.

In a conscience vote last week, the New Zealand parliament, at the urging of Prime Minister Jacinda Adern’s Labour government, voted not only to decriminalise abortion but to make it the choice of a woman up to the 20th week, or fifth month of pregnancy. After that, terminations will be allowed “if the health practitioner reasonably believes that the abortion is clinically appropriate in the circumstances”. However, the doctor, in this case, will have to consult with at least one other colleague and will have to be guided by “all relevant legal, professional, and ethical standards”, as well as the woman’s overall well-being, including her physical and mental health. The age of the foetus will also factor in the decision.

Prior to these amendments, New Zealand operated on a 43-year-old law, which, though less draconian than Jamaica’s, made abortion a criminal offence unless carrying the foetus “posed a serious danger to the pregnant woman’s health”. Still, upwards of 13,000 abortions were done each year, many of them, it is presumed, on the basis of a wink and a nod between patient and doctor.

“From now on, abortions will be treated as a health issue,” said New Zealand’s justice minister, Andrew Little.

The more important effect of the law, though, is that it affirms a woman’s right to her body, thereby liberating her right to choose. Others will have their right to religious and moral indignation at abortions but not the coercive power to insist that women maintain unwanted pregnancies. It was an acceptance of the fundamental right to choose that caused Irish citizens, two years ago, to remove a constitutional bar to abortions.

Jamaica, however, continues to be a laggard in this progressive trend, held back, primarily, by religious fundamentalists and conservative mainstream Christians, who assert life and personhood at conception and wield political influence beyond real sentiment in the country over the issue. So, a Jamaican woman, or anyone who helps her in the act, can be jailed for life for making a decision about her own body by terminating a pregnancy.

That, however, doesn’t mean that abortions don’t take place in Jamaica. The anecdotal evidence suggests that many do. It is just that terminations are more readily available to educated, relatively well-to-do uptown women, while the risky, back-room, or self-applied procedures are mostly on offer to poor women who can’t pay. We’d be hardly surprised if it is the latter demographic that accounts for the bulk of the 13 per cent of early-pregnancy haemorrhage cases that are likely to be admitted to the Victoria Jubilee Hospital and suspected to be the result of abortion attempts.

Jamaica’s Parliament must, at a minimum, liberate a woman’s body to her, allowing her the right to decide, on her own volition, whether she wants to carry a foetus at least 12 weeks, although the 20 weeks in the New Zealand legislation is the more sensible option. We should also adopt the other elements of the New Zealand amendment.

Indeed, there is no logical reason for there not to be political consensus around these proposals, which the major parties should pledge to implement early in the next term, if Parliament doesn’t get it done now. Immediate action is our preference.