It is time that Jamaica decriminalises abortion

Dear Editor,

We, the undersigned social justice and women’s organisations and individual advocates, note the parliamentary consultations on the law on abortion in Jamaica.

Within CARICOM, Barbados (1983) and Guyana (1995) have led the way with legislation that decriminalizes the termination of pregnancy. Belize, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have expanded the exceptions that allow for abortion under the criminal law.

In the Caribbean and internationally, access to safe termination of pregnancy is a social justice and human rights issue.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), unsafe abortions make up 20 percent of all maternal deaths globally. Women between the ages of 15-49 in Latin America and the Caribbean have a rate of unsafe abortions of 41 per 1,000 women, the highest globally.  Seventy percent of all unsafe abortions in the Caribbean are carried out on women below 30 years old.

In desperation, poor women, adolescent girls and young women seek abortions from unqualified persons, often in unhygienic environments. Some of the methods and implements used to induce miscarriages include: inserting bicycle spokes into the uterus; douching with bleach or hot Dettol; ingesting hot stout with quinine tablets; ingesting Cytotec, an over-the-counter drug which results in haemorrhaging; and having a ‘massage’ by a village midwife.

In Trinidad and Tobago, research conducted by ASPIRE has shown that some 3,000–4,000 women and girls seek emergency treatment at public hospitals annually for the health complications of backstreet abortions, which include sepsis and haemorrhage. Many others do not seek early medical intervention and suffer infertility, fistulae, pelvic inflammatory disease, chronic pelvic pain later on and even death. We understand as well that unsafe abortions are one of the leading causes of maternal mortality in Jamaica.

While poor women tend to suffer these terrible consequences, their middle and upper class sisters can afford to pay for abortions conducted by gynaecologists and general practitioners under sanitary conditions in private medical clinics.

The law therefore, in its actual effect, discriminates against poor women. They are forced to make choices that they may otherwise not make if public health facilities guaranteed services for termination on the basis of informed consent and confidentiality.

Certainly many have abortions for unwanted pregnancies for a range of reasons in the context of their life realities. These are decisions that must be respected because we all have the right to privacy and to integrity of the person. Laws that criminalize abortion severely restrict decision-making by women in respect of their sexual and reproductive health. Who can or should make a judgement for the person who will be carrying all the consequences of pregnancy and child birth for the rest of their lives? 

Yet those who oppose decriminalization of abortion do just that. They insert their ideas of morality between women who have an unwanted pregnancy and their access to safe public health services. Women, who cannot get private medical reproductive services otherwise available for those who can afford them, feel this intrusion on autonomy, privacy and family life disproportionately.  

Policy decisions on abortion must be consistent with fundamental rights and freedoms. The Jamaican constitution guarantees the right to privacy and family life which can only be restricted if the enjoyment of that right prejudices the rights and freedoms of others or the public interest. 

Access to abortion does not affect the rights or legitimate interests of any other person, save the prospective father, and even here, his wishes must be subordinate to the woman whose well-being and autonomy should be the primary consideration. Forcing girls and women to have children when they are unprepared and/or unwilling or forcing women to access unsafe abortion, with the consequential tragedies that result, cannot be in the public interest.

For those who have a strong religious point of view on abortion, this is to be respected. However, this should not be at the expense of the lives of women and girls or their right to make reproductive decisions.

There is a global consensus that the human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and the right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence. This has been upheld in the outcome documents of the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women and their follow up conferences. Additionally, UN human rights treaty bodies have called on states to reconsider laws that criminalize abortion.

The State, therefore, has an obligation to ensure non-discriminatory access to termination of pregnancy for all, regardless of social status or income.  

We congratulate the Jamaican parliamentarians and social justice advocates who have placed this issue on the legislative agenda. We urge the Jamaican parliament to guarantee women’s enjoyment of their rights to equal treatment, privacy, integrity of the person and non-discriminatory access to sexual and reproductive health rights and services.

Yours faithfully,

•  CAISO: Sex & Gender Justice (Trinidad & Tobago)

•  Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action, Trinidad and Tobago Chapter

•  Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action, Regional Network

•  Equality Bahamas

•  Red Thread, Guyana

•  WOMANTRA

•  Andaiye, Guyana

•  Peggy Antrobus, Barbados

• Rawwida Baksh, Trinidad and Tobago

•  Marion Bethel, Member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) The Bahamas (signing in individual capacity)

•  Ramona Biholar, Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UWI Mona.

•  Roberta Clarke, Coalition against Domestic Violence, Trinidad and Tobago

•  Hazel Da Breo, Director, Sweet Water Foundation, Grenada

•  Sandra Edwards, Barbados

• Gabrielle Elliott-Williams,  Lecturer, Faculty of Law, The UWI (Mona)

•  Honor Ford Smith, Associate Professor, York University.

•  Margaret Gill, Mental Health advocate

•  Kristina Hinds, Lecturer, UWI, Cave Hill, Barbados

•  Marsha Hinds Layne, Barbados

• Asha Kambon, Trinidad and Tobago

• Kamala Kempadoo, Professor, York University

•  Vidyaratha Kissoon, Guyana

•  Marlon Mills, St. Vincent and the Grenadines

•  Nan Peacock, Canada

•  Rhoda Reddock, Member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Trinidad and Tobago ((signing in individual capacity)

•  Audrey Roberts, The Bahamas

•  Tracy Robinson, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, The UWI (Mona)

• Michelle Rowley, Trinidadian Citizen/Associate Professor, Women’s Studies   Department University of Maryland

• Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth, CEO, Caribbean Family Planning Affiliation (CFPA)

• Alissa Trotz, Guyana/Canada

• Alice Wallace, The Bahamas

• Rosina Wiltshire, Former UN Resident Coordinator,  

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