No need to mislead

No need to mislead

Alyssa Nebel & Linnette Vassell

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

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In her commentary 'Don't distort abortion conversation, Member of Parliament (MP) Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn, published by the Jamaica Observer on July 2, 2108, Phillipa Davies, spokesperson for Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society, makes some very misleading statements to justify her organisation's opposition to legalising the termination of pregnancy under specific conditions. She argues that neither the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) nor the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) discuss abortion. This argument stems from a surface reading of the SDGs and what seems to be a shallow understanding of CEDAW. In addition, Davies cherry-picks content from the recommendations of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and consequently presents a one-sided and selective interpretation.

By their very nature, these international agreements speak to broad principles which advance economic, social, political, and environmental rights and justice designed to uphold the dignity and rights of women, men, boys, and girls in our diverse and nation-specific cultural contexts. For example, one of these general principles is presented in CEDAW, Article 12.1, wherein the convention puts forth the pledge that States “...shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, access to health care services, including those related to family planning” (1979).

Articles 17-22 of CEDAW (of which Davies acknowledges Article 21) deal with the application of the convention's principles. These articles empower the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW committee) to make suggestions and general recommendations (1979). Davies does not, however, recognise that it is such committees as this one which monitor and evaluate how States carry out the obligations under respective treaties and make recommendations in light of the broad principles outlined above.

While these “suggestions” are not legally binding, it is the recommendations of the CEDAW committee, particularly in this instance, which explain further what the convention actually means in practice.

In elaborating on Article 12 in 1999, the committee recommends that, in practice, States should “ensure universal access for all women to a full range of high-quality and affordable health care, including sexual and reproductive health services” (General Recommendation 29, 1999). Further, it explicitly encourages, whenever possible, the amendment of “legislation criminalising abortion […] to remove punitive provisions imposed on women who undergo abortion” whenever possible (Art 12, GR 31c, 1999).

In Jamaica's 2004 Country Report on CEDAW progress the public confusion around abortion law is addressed. The report reminds readers that abortion is still illegal under the Offences Against the Persons Act of 1861 (OAPA), but also points out the existence of a 1975 Ministry of Health policy which “permits medical [abortions] in cases of danger to the mother's health/life, and in cases of rape, incest and carnal abuse” (paragraph 267, Jamaica's Fifth Periodic CEDAW Report, 2004).

That Jamaican Ministerial Policy (from 43 years ago) had called for OAPA to be amended to allow for abortion in these specific cases. The 2004 Jamaica report recommends, with the endorsement of health care practitioners, for the Government to clarify its ambiguous position on abortion and support such a clarification in legislation: “It is felt that the absence of such legislation will further marginalise the promotion, preservation and maintenance of the highest standards of the sexual and reproductive health of Jamaican women.” (paragraph 270, Jamaica's Fifth Periodic CEDAW Report, 2004)

Six years ago, in response to Jamaica's 2012 CEDAW country report, the CEDAW committee's 'Concluding Observations' expressed grave concern “that abortion is illegal in cases of pregnancies resulting from rape, incest and threats to mothers' health and life; that abortion is criminalised with severe penalties; and that there is lack of data on the incidence of unsafe abortions and its linkages to high infant and maternal mortality rates” (paragraph 29). The specific recommendations made in 1999 around removing punitive provisions for women who undergo abortions were repeated again in 2012 (paragraph 30cc, Concluding Observations, 2012).

Davies also makes some blatantly incomplete statements about the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BDPFA) which misrepresent the facts. She says that the declaration “in fact, speaks against abortion” (2018). This is not true. There is an explicit recommendation to “consider reviewing laws containing punitive measures against women who have undergone illegal abortions” (106k, BDPFA, 1995).

In addition, Davies very selectively quotes paragraph 8.25 of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), stating that “in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning” (ibid). Directly following that statement, and conveniently ignored by Davies, however, is the declaration that: “All governments and relevant intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations are urged to strengthen their commitment to women's health, to deal with the health impact of unsafe abortion” (ibid).

Further to this, the Beijing Declaration recognises the fact that, “Unsafe abortions threaten the lives of a large number of women, representing a grave public health problem, as it is primarily the poorest and youngest who take the highest risk.” (97, BDPFA, 1995)

Davies also refers to 109i of the declaration, which calls for more research in order to better understand and address the impacts of abortion on women who choose it. However, such research will never be effectively done until abortion is decriminalised.

According to Davies, abortion is not “mentioned” in the SDGs. While this is, strictly speaking, true, this is again a surface-level interpretation of the goals. In fact, through Vision 2030, Jamaica has committed to SDG 3, and specifically to helping to reduce the global maternal mortality rate to less than 70 per 100,000 live births. In our specific context, achieving this goal will not be possible unless unsafe abortion, a major driver for maternal mortality in this country, is eliminated. And unsafe abortions will not be eliminated until safe abortion is made available.

Jamaica's National Policy for Gender Equality has a target objective in line with Vision 2030: “To reduce the maternal mortality rate by eliminating the need for unsafe abortions.” (pp 45-46, 2011). It recommends public consultations on abortion policy to be carried out and agreed upon and, based on agreed position, for new legislation to be drafted and enacted (ibid).

Collectively, we have been doing the research and consultations for nearly 50 years now. In the current Jamaican context, unsafe abortions are the third-leading cause of maternal deaths. This is why the Women's Resource and Outreach Centre is active in the PROMAC partnership with The University of the West Indies promoting maternal, neonatal and infant health.

For the above reasons and more we support the motion of MP Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn and other stakeholders before her, such as MP Lisa Hanna, Sistren Theatre Collective, and other organisations and individuals who have for years pushed for reform.

The majority of Jamaican women and men agree that women should have the right to decide on pregnancy termination under prescribed circumstances, including cases of rape and incest, health risk to the mother, and foetal abnormality incompatible with life. Let us move forward on the basis of these facts.

Alyssa Nebel is a Global Affairs Canada intern and education and outreach officer at Women's Resource and Outreach Centre. Linnette Vassell is a gender and advocacy specialist with PROMAC at Women's Resource and Outreach Centre. Send comments to the Observer or

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