Sun | Nov 28, 2021

Male-run state a hindrance to abortion consensus, says rights advocate

Published:Sunday | March 31, 2019 | 12:00 AMNadine Wilson-Harris/Staff Reporter
From left: Stacy-Ann Gavin, Shakira Maxwell and Joan French speaking at the International Women’s Day Seminar on Abortion at the Institute of Gender and Development Studies Regional Coordinating Unit last Thursday.

At least one human rights advocate is blaming the inability of government ministers to reach a consensus on abortion on the fact that the country’s Parliament is predominantly patriarchal.

Feminist Joan French said that parliamentarian Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn is fighting an uphill but courageous battle in trying to get the parliament to implement the recommendations made by the Abortion Policy Review Advisory Group. The West Rural St Andrew member of parliament wants the Government to decriminalise abortion and provide women with safe and affordable methods to terminate pregnancy.

“Our state machinery is patriarchal; it is run not just by men as sexual males, but by men who are committed to a vision of their own power as it relates to the control of women,” said French.

French is an active member of the Partnership for Women’s Health and Well-Being and is a founding member of the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action. She pointed to data from the World Health Organization which indicated that an estimated 22,000 illegal abortions are performed in Jamaica each year.

“It is not a matter that has to do with your party political affiliation, it is a women’s issue and we want people across parties and divisions and whatever to come together and recognise and mobilise around that,” she said.


French was one of four panellists taking part in a Women’s Month Lunchtime Seminar at the Institute of Gender and Development Studies Regional Coordinating Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus, on Thursday. She lamented the fact that despite efforts over the years, no government has been able to decriminalise abortion in Jamaica.

“Women waited 50 years longer than men to get the right to vote,” she said before adding, “We are now in 2019, and 1975 is when a member of a government of a Ministry of Health in this country proposed the legalisation of abortion under certain circumstances, and we are now in 2019. It’s only five more years to go to 50 years to wait for this.”

In presenting the historical perspective of abortion, president of the board of directors for the Jamaica Family Planning Association, Shakira Maxwell, said abortion was used as a means by enslaved women to prevent their children from becoming enslaved. She said women used several methods to abort their children, including ingesting plant based substances.

“The criminalisation of abortion dates back to an 1864 Offences Against the Persons Act, which is the act which is still legal in Jamaica,” she noted.

Contraceptives were eventually introduced as an option for women wanting to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and physician Dr Lenworth Jacobs and his wife Beth eventually started the Jamaica Family Planning Association to make them more accessible.

“The role of the Family Planning Association in those early days is critical, because there was no state active role in birth control, and so the Jacobs raised funds and they set up two clinics because they realised the importance of the women’s autonomous control over their own bodies and their own lives, and in so doing, they undertook tremendous work in the area of family planning,” said Maxwell.

Despite the availability of contraceptives, several botched abortions are done annually, which Maxwell argues jeopardises the health of women and their future reproductive capabilities.

“What is clear is that there is a long history, there is a long struggle, and so those of us who are involved in the discussion today, we stand firmly on the shoulders of our ancestors – the women and the men who recognise the importance of women’s rights to their own bodily functions,” said Maxwell, who is currently pursuing doctorial studies at the University of the West Indies.

“The issue of abortion is complicated, but it speaks to matters of public health and issues of rights, it is a decision which is personal, and in the majority of cases, it is not taken lightly by women. As long as it remains illegal, women will continue to die, and if we value women’s lives like we claim to value women’s lives, we must address the issue urgently,” she appealed.