Today, we will mark the 20th anniversary of one of the more unusual votes in our National Assembly.
That vote on May 4, 1995, was the first and almost certainly our last free, non-partisan vote. For a brief moment, we managed to put women’s interests above partisan calculations.
What is more, this occurred in the midst of a period of declared ‘non-cooperation’ by the PNC.
Yet both Cheddi Jagan and Desmond Hoyte instructed their members to vote according to their conscience, free of any obligation to hold to party discipline.
And it was on an intensely controversial subject – providing legal access to safe medical abortion.
The promises of the law were lofty:
“…to enhance the dignity and sanctity of life by reducing the incidence of induced abortion, to enhance the attainment of safe motherhood by eliminating deaths and complications due to unsafe abortion, to prescribe those circumstances in which any woman who voluntarily and in good faith wishes to terminate her pregnancy may lawfully do so…” (Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1995).
Each of these goals is sufficiently specific to be measured. Indeed, that was a further assurance – that the law would be monitored in order to secure those goals.
Implementing any law is challenging. But acting on one that strains so sharply at citizens’ deeply held values is fraught with difficulties.
It would be a great anniversary if we were able to say that the law has significantly reduced or eliminated complications and deaths due to unsafe abortions.
Or that the quality of counselling that the law requires has resulted in such an uptake of contraceptives among men and women alike, that there has been a steep decline in the need for abortions.
Unfortunately, we know of no research or data that could inform such a view. In the first six months after the law, the number of admissions to (then) Georgetown Public Hospital for complications of abortion declined by a very encouraging 41%. That was 19 years ago.
Twenty years after legalization, the stigma of abortion still prevents effective implementation.
We overcome any stigma only by speaking openly and constructively about them – whether tuberculosis or cancer or HIV/AIDS or sexual orientation. Or abortion.
We will not be able to develop our views on abortion or any other controversial subject, unless those of us who disagree, learn to listen and speak with each other patiently and respectfully.
Sadly, we seem to be moving in precisely the opposite direction – becoming ever more riven, locked into our own views and intolerant of all other perspectives. We are a society and a polity divided against our shared, common, best interest.
May 4, or June 14 when President Cheddi Jagan signed the law, should be a day of celebration. Will we have anything to celebrate? Will we even notice it?