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Abortion plea

Experts urge repeal of century-old law

Observer staff reporter

Tuesday, April 10, 2018


Legislators are being urged to repeal sections of the more than century-old Offences Against the Person Act which prevent Jamaican women from legally terminating pregnancies.

The appeal came from a group of experts in human rights in patient care at yesterday's Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange, ahead of International Day for Maternal Health and Rights being observed tomorrow.

“Unsafe abortion accounts for the third leading cause of maternal death. And why this is important is that maternal deaths and under-five deaths are sensitive measures of the quality of our health care,” said Professor Wendel Abel, head of The University of the West Indies (UWI) Department of Community Health and Psychiatry.

According to Abel, who is also lead investigator for the Partnership for the Promotion of Patients' Right in Maternal, Neonatal and Infant Health in Jamaica, unsafe abortions have become a major public health problem.

That point was corroborated by professor of reproductive health and epidemiology at The UWI, Affette McCaw-Binns.

“Abortion is on the books as illegal. So if a woman finds herself with an unacceptable pregnancy she has to find a way outside of the public health delivery system. The private sector cost means that women sometimes need time to get all of this together and this delays early intervention when it is much safer,” Professor McCaw-Binns said.

“The law we are operating under is sections 72 and 73 of the 1864 Offences Against the Person Act. It says that women and their doctors can be charged with felonious assault for procuring or facilitating an abortion, and they can be imprisoned for life if they are found guilty. Now, if you provide a woman with information of where she can get the procedure done you could be charged with a misdemeanour and you could be imprisoned for up to three years,” she said.

Statistics show that of the 108 maternal deaths that occurred due to abortive outcomes for the period 2013-2015; 27 took place at home.

“If we look at where women are dying from the procedure, some of them are getting to hospital, but a large portion of them are women who are dying at home. So they are never even reaching to hospital. The challenge we have is that we don't think these data are complete. The stigma associated with seeking and reporting an induced abortion often deters women from seeking timely care when complications arise, and this is contributing to these deaths at home,” McCaw-Binns added.

Abel said that the reform of the law has become a “political football” as successive governments have failed to take a decision.

“The reality is that a lot of women are afraid to come forward when the complications associated with induced abortion occur. They are afraid to come forward because of this veil, the veil of silence and secrecy; the veil of shame in the society,” Abel said.

“Reviewing and revising that law is critical to lifting this veil. Therefore, we are calling, once again, upon our policymakers and the Government to address the matter and to address it urgently. How many more women have to suffer? How many more women have to die before this is done?” Abel stressed.

Professor Affette McCaw-Binns, in the meantime, shared that data was examined in 2004 which fuelled concerns about the growing rate of abortion and a task force was formed as a result.

“That group reported in 2008 to Parliament and it went to a parliamentary committee and things that are not popular tend to have a long gestation in those committees,” the professor said.

She said that among the group's recommendations were the repeal of “relevant” sections of the Act to treat abortion as a civil instead of criminal act; the establishment of clear guidelines to determine under what circumstances the procedure should be done and register and monitor providers doing procedures.

Regional public facilities were also recommended to provide procedures safely to people meeting the criteria.

“Health facilities need to open to women and their families facing an unintended pregnancy to discuss the full range of options from termination to adoption to parenthood and have this decision respected,” McCaw-Binns said, then asked, “Is taking the decision to terminate a pregnancy really a crime?”

Executive director of the Women's Resource Outreach Centre Nikeisha Sewell Lewis, at the same time, said that gender discrimination poses a challenge with regard to abortions and the outcomes.

“We look at the woman who shows up at the clinic and has had an abortion and we have not looked at intimate partner violence. A major factor, for me, why some women do not come forward is that many women in Jamaica still do not have full access to their own reproductive health and wellness,” she said.

“They don't make a decision about a condom; they don't make a decision about reproduction. They live in a situation where male partners sometimes are the ones who have power. Until we really address the underlining gender discrimination that occurs in Jamaica, how are we going to move forward?” Sewell Lewis said, adding that the Government must respond to the continuous discrimination taking place.