Debate abortion, but without the emotion

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

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Abortion is one of those issues that surfaces from time to time in this country and on which we have not been able to gain consensus. That's because the debates are usually filled with emotion as there are strong views on both sides, especially from the church which is fiercely opposed to the procedure.

On Monday, a group of experts on human rights in patient care raised the controversial issue again at the Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange, arguing that the law that criminalises abortion is archaic.

According to professor of reproductive health and epidemiology at The University of the West Indies (UWI) Affette McCaw-Binns, the law is found in sections 72 and 73 of the 1864 Offences Against the Person Act, which states that women and their doctors can be charged with felonious assault for procuring or facilitating an abortion, and can be imprisoned for life if they are found guilty. In addition, anyone who provides a woman with information on where she can get the procedure done can be charged with a misdemeanour and can be imprisoned for up to three years.

Professor McCaw-Binns and Professor Wendel Abel, who heads The UWI's Department of Community Health and Psychiatry, pointed out that unsafe abortions account for the third leading cause of maternal death in Jamaica and, as such, have become a major public health problem.

Last September, World Health Organization (WHO) researchers reported that 25 million unsafe abortions (45 per cent of all abortions) occurred every year between 2010 and 2014.

Other scientists in Europe have argued that those findings highlight the need to ensure access to safe abortions to the full extent of the law, particularly in low-income regions.

“When women and girls cannot access effective contraception and safe abortion services, there are serious consequences for their own health and that of their families,” Dr Bela Ganatra, a scientist in the WHO Department of Reproductive Health and Research, was reported as saying at the time. “This should not happen. But despite recent advances in technology and evidence, too many unsafe abortions still occur, and too many women continue to suffer and die.”

The WHO also pointed out that these unsafe abortions are performed by people who lack the necessary skills, or in places that do not meet medical standards, or both.

Those points were raised on Monday by professors McCaw-Binns and Abel who also said they don't believe that the data they have is complete because of the stigma associated with abortion in Jamaica.

“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,” Professor Abel said.

They both pointed to a task force established to examine this issue and which reported its findings to Parliament in 2008. The problem is that the report has been sitting in the legislature since then.

While the issue is highly controversial, we believe that it is worthy of debate and as such should again be placed on the agenda. Our hope is that the debate will not be coloured by narrow views on either side.

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