Abortion: by any means necessary

All Woman

WHILE the debate rages on about whether abortions should be legalised in Jamaica, the practice thrives quietly and peacefully in small doctors' offices and homes across the island. With directions to special doctors' offices from women who have used the services, a forlorn demeanour, and carefully calculated first trimester pseudo-pregnancy in tow, All Woman traversed the Corporate Area and St Catherine to investigate the cost and level of difficultly it takes to get an abortion done.

And from uptown to downtown, in daylight or night hours, in spotless clinics or run-down buildings, and from a choice of local, general or no anaesthesia, it's a fascinatingly simple procedure to obtain.

True to its reputation of having the best deals around Kingston, downtown, we discovered, is where the tools for low-budget abortions can be procured.

“You ago take one bus and go out on Spanish Town Road,” a hairdresser whispered to our All Woman reporter, giving careful directions to a distribution outlet where pills could be purchased to induce the abortion.

“You ago pay $7,000 for six pill, but you haffi know how fi deal wid the thing properly,” she warned. “Make sure you don't eat or drink anything fi couple hours before, then you swallow two, and push up two, and go lie down. Then you ago see your period and feel some cramps and a it dat.”

When asked about the side effects, the woman referred to her friend, who asked how far along the supposed pregnancy was.

“About eight weeks.”

“Yeah man, that a young belly. You won't have nuh problems,” she reassured. “But if you want to make sure it go through, me can send you to a doctor office. Him bad like AIDS.”

The doctor's office in reference was our next stop. The small St Andrew business place bore no sign of the name of the doctor, or the exact speciality. The waiting area held three women, two of whom were accompanied by men, and none of whom made eye contact.

The receptionist spoke in hushed tones as she explained the process — pay $2,000 to see the doctor, who would perform an examination to determine the cost of the abortion. She could not give an estimate, as that depended on how far along the pregnancy was.

It was a similar scenario at two other offices that were visited thereafter — pay up front to be examined, and then talk about the details later.

The last receptionist, however, perhaps moved by our desperation of having to accumulate the funds before returning, asked how far along the pregnancy was.

“About eight weeks.”

“Then you won't pay more than $25,000,” she said sympathetically. “But don't wait too long before you come back.”

The costs get lower the farther out of the city one heads — as low as $7,500 for a six-week foetus in St Catherine, and as high as $70,000 for one much older.

Sections 72 and 73 of the current Offences Against the Person Act details that any pregnant woman who unlawfully takes action to procure her own miscarriage, and other persons who procure the miscarriage, may be guilty of a felony and being convicted shall be liable to be imprisoned for life. The same punishment applies to anyone who unlawfully supplies or obtains items known to cause an abortion.

But despite what the law says, when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, scores of Jamaican women still seek out abortion services, to hell with the law.

Because they understand that presenting rules and laws on paper is one thing, but being in a desperate situation where having a child is not an option is well worth the risk of seeking a termination.

And so came the motion last year before the House of Representatives by Member of Parliament Juliet Cuthbert Flynn, to take steps to repeal sections 72 and 73 of the Offences Against the Persons Act, which makes abortion illegal, and substitute it with a civil law, “The Termination of Pregnancy Act”, as was recommended by the Abortion Policy Review Group in 2007.

“The Parliament has a duty to take a stand. I have a duty to take a stand, not on either side of the debate, but a stand about protecting the lives of women, particularly poor women, regardless of public opinion about the value of their lives,” Cuthbert Flynn told the House, as she opened the debate on her motion last October.

She said that the illegality of abortion has not in any way prevented women from procuring it from qualified or unqualified medical professionals, or attempting to do it on their own.

As the debate rages on with lawmakers, those women who wish to end their pregnancies find camaraderie with sisters, cousins, friends, and colleagues who have accessed the services, and see it as their duty to pay it forward.

“My friend's abortion happened in the dark of night and I was there to hold her hand, having got the doctor's number from another friend,” one woman shared. “I considered it my duty to assist, to ensure that she had a safe, clean place, under anaesthesia, to do what she wished with her body and her life. We protect each other in the sisterhood, because only a woman will understand the struggle and the sacrifice that comes with making such a decision.”

Others commend the doctors and their families who helped them through the decision that enabled them to continue down their life's path.

“I think it is good that some doctors still do the procedure, because not everyone is ready for a child or can afford one. I think it is better to have an abortion than bring a child into the world that you cannot care for, or might even end up hating because of how they were conceived,” another woman said.

“I got pregnant when I was 19 and in sixth form, and when I told my boyfriend at the time, who was the only person I ever had sex with, he broke up with me saying it wasn't his and I must have cheated. I went home and cried to my mother, who was a single mother herself. I told her that I wasn't ready for a baby, and she told me that she couldn't raise any grandchildren because she still had my younger siblings to take care of. She took me to the doctor the following night, and he did the procedure. He talked with me about it and asked if I was sure it was what I wanted to do. I was sure. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I had kept that baby, but when I look at how my mother was struggling to care for us on her own, I don't think I really want to know. I could work part-time and start university later that year, and I have now completed my degree, and can contribute meaningfully to my family.”

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