Editorial | Next move on abortion trail
When members of parliament (MPs) move to the front benches – as Juliet Cuthbert Flynn has, to become a member of the executive – they are expected, personal views notwithstanding, to toe the line of the party or government.
As of now, on this matter, Mrs Cuthbert Flynn is under no such constraint. For the Holness administration has not made a clear statement on its position on abortion. Neither, 10 months later, has it said how it intends to proceed on the recommendation by Parliament’s Human Resources and Social Development Committee that it holds a conscience vote on the matter.
Our suggestion to Mrs Cuthbert Flynn, in the circumstance, is that she relaunches and reinvigorates her campaign for the legalisation of abortion in Jamaica, utilising her added purchase as the junior minister for health, with a portfolio that specifically includes maternal health.
She will likely have two other factors potentially in favour of a positive outcome. One is the momentum of votes last year, by legislatures on either side of the world, to make abortions legal. The first was in New Zealand. But perhaps the more significant was the December 30 decision by Argentina’s senate, to reverse its position of two years earlier, when it voted ‘no’ on the same issue. The action by the Argentine congress was despite the strong opposition of the deeply conservative Roman Catholic Church. The other potentially positive circumstance is the composition of Jamaica’s Parliament.
Since last September’s general election, 18 MPs, or approximately 29 per cent of the members of the House of Representatives, are female. In the Senate the ratio is even better – 38 per cent, or eight of the chamber’s 21 members. If we were to hazard a guess, a significant majority, if not all, of these women would probably be in favour of females being in control of their own bodies and in charge of their maternal health.
By most credible global estimates, there are more than 20,000 abortions in Jamaica, almost all of which would be illegal under the anachronistic 1861 law that covers such procedures. Indeed, according to Section 72 of the Offences Against the Person Act, a woman who, whether by own actions or with the assistance of someone elsewhere, has an abortion “commits a felony, and, being convicted thereof, shall be liable to be imprisoned for life, with or without, hard labour”. Someone who helps her, say a doctor, can be jailed for up to three years.
Clearly, as the statistics demonstrate, despite the legal risks, many Jamaican women have abortions. Indeed, terminations are equivalent to over 60 per cent of the annual average live births, which, in 2019, was 34,632. The problem, however, is that a large proportion of these procedures are unsafe, back-room procedures. Some of these account for the well over 40 per cent of patients who turn up at the Victoria Jubilee maternity hospital with complications that are deemed to be result of attempted abortions. They are mostly poorer, less-educated women. Educated, well-to-do women can afford, and often access, professional medical services. As is the case with many other things in Jamaica, there is a class divide on who has access to safe abortions.
ROBOUST HEALTHCARE ENVIRONMENT
This newspaper remains firm in its position that a woman’s right to her body must include a right to determine how she treats an unviable foetus inside her, in consultation with healthcare professionals. In this regard, we back the repeal, forthwith, of Sections 72 and 73 of the Offences of the Persons Act and the enactment of a termination of pregnancy act, under which a woman and her doctor can determine how, and if, to terminate a pregnancy of up to 12 weeks. We would support, too, a more robust healthcare environment for terminations up to 22 weeks, with the woman guaranteed full privacy at any institution of care. There must be special provisions to the victims of rape and incest and for mentally ill persons.
We had hoped that the parliamentary committee would endorse a position similar to what we have outlined and in keeping with the 2006 proposals of a health ministry policy review committee. Instead, they stated the various policy options and suggested the conscience vote. Abortion reform has been on and off the agenda for decades. Mrs Cuthbert Flynn put it back there in 2018 with her private member’s motion in Parliament. She must now hit the campaign trail to see the process through.