Minister Lisa Hanna is absolutely right. It’s high time for us to review the backward law that turns women into criminals because they choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The law also criminalises medical doctors and unlicensed practitioners of various sorts who assist women in getting abortions.
It’s a highly emotional issue, especially in a fundamentalist Christian society like ours. After all, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” And abortion is murder. But is it? A foetus is not a human being, in much the same way that an egg is not a chicken. The egg does, indeed, have the potential to become a chicken. But if it’s eaten for breakfast, that’s that. It’s a pity some of us aren’t rational enough to see the difference between a foetus and an actual child.
According to the 1864 Offences Against the Person Act, a pregnant woman who tries to abort the foetus in her own body is guilty of a felony and, if convicted, is liable to be imprisoned for life, with or without hard labour. No pun intended, I suppose. If anyone attempts to help her with the abortion, that person is also guilty of a felony and is liable to be similarly sentenced. The ‘druggist’ who supplies any ‘noxious thing’ to be used for the abortion, or even the bearer of the thing to facilitate the process, is also liable to be imprisoned.
This piece of legislation is truly remarkable, especially bearing in mind the history of our country. The act was passed a mere 30 years after the abolition of slavery. All of a sudden, a foetus (not a ‘child’) was much more valuable than millions of enslaved Africans who were seen as beasts of burden and, therefore, entirely fit subjects for protracted abuse. Their lives needed no protection. An unborn ‘person’ now had more rights than actual persons, many of whom still had vivid memories of being brutalised by enslavement. Did this act have any moral authority? Or was it intended to ensure the availability of an unending supply of cheap labour?
THE UGLY ISSUE OF CLASS
It took more than a century for Jamaica’s oppressive abortion law to be modified. In 1975, the Ministry of Health, in a Statement of Policy on abortion, declared that it was now “lawful for a registered medical practitioner, acting in good faith to take steps to terminate the pregnancy of any woman if … he forms the opinion that the continuation of the pregnancy would be likely to constitute a threat to the life of the woman or inure [work] to the detriment of her mental and physical health”. Note the gendered language: the medical practitioner is presumed to be male.
The Statement of Policy called for amendment of the Offences Against the Person Act (1864) in order to clarify the circumstances in which abortion could be deemed lawful in Jamaica – such as in cases of rape, carnal abuse and incest. Thirty-eight years later, the antiquated act has still not been amended. And what about much broader reproductive rights?
Lisa Hanna must be congratulated for boldly daring to put on the agenda the contentious matter of decriminalising abortion. And she raises the ugly issue of class. As she perceptively observes, “Abortion is still illegal in this country, and a woman’s right to choose whether or not to keep her pregnancy is, in effect, exercised only by those who can afford a private doctor.”
Quite early in my career at the University of the West Indies, a student fearfully confided that she was pregnant. One of the challenges of being a teacher, even at the tertiary level, is that students expect advice quite unrelated to academic matters. I immediately asked the distraught young woman if she had told her mother. She said she was afraid to tell her. I reassured her that her mother would certainly understand. In two twos, she had an abortion and hardly missed any classes.
ECONOMICS, NOT MORALITY
If all the middle-class women in Jamaica who have had abortions would speak out on behalf of their poorer sisters who have limited access to safe terminations, the law would have to be changed. But so often in these matters, there is one standard for the rich and another for the poor. If you can afford to pay for a safe abortion, this somehow makes you superior to women who can’t. It’s no longer a matter of morality; it’s all about economics.
Data from the Ministry of Health confirm that approximately 1,200 women are treated each year for complications arising from unsafe abortions. And those are just the official figures. In the 21st century, poor women in Jamaica are still risking their lives in order to claim reproductive rights that middle-class women simply take for granted.
Lisa Hanna has been viciously attacked, particularly by men who seem to presume that they are divinely ordained to exercise control over the bodies of women. Last Wednesday, The Gleaner published a letter by a cowardly writer, most likely a man, hiding under the false name, ‘Oxy Moron’. Headlined ‘Let’s kill every poor pickney’, the truly moronic load of drivel was elevated to the status of Letter of the Day.
Distorting Ms Hanna’s plea for reform, the moron pretends that the minister is proposing mass murder: “Go and fetch every woman and every girl who is pregnant, but lacks parenting skills, and exterminate their babies, even the pretty ones who could become Miss World!” Of course, the reproductive rights of women are not about killing ‘poor pickney’, pretty or not. In Jamaica, it’s ‘rich pickney’ who are aborted.
The African-American lawyer, civil-rights activist and feminist Florynce Kennedy famously declared, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” What is now a badge of shame for women would become a sacred rite of passage marking the transition from childhood to adulthood. But since it’s women who do get pregnant, we have to turn shame into pride as we claim the right to control our own bodies.