House committee recommends conscience vote on abortionSaturday, March 28, 2020
BY BALFORD HENRY
THE House of Representatives' Human Resources and Social Development Select Committee has recommended that Members of Parliament make a “conscience” vote to determine whether or not abortion should be legalised in Jamaica.
The recommendation was obviously the likeliest response from the 11-member committee, chaired by Opposition MP and Roman Catholic Deacon Ronald Thwaites, after listening to the divisive views of more than 70 local and overseas institutions, individuals and emotional experts for a little over two years.
The recommendation said, briefly:
“Your committee, being cognisant of the contending views on the subject matter, recommends that a conscience vote be done by the members of this honourable House. We further recommend that pregnant women, and fathers, should be provided with the option to receive counselling on how to become parents.”
A conscience vote means that the MPs would vote according to their own conscience, rather than following party lines. However, it was obvious from the start of the process that the division was more religious than political.
One simple division of opinion notably captured in the committee's report stated:
“We observed that a common recommendation that was made by stakeholders was that women should receive counselling before they consider procuring an abortion, to know their options. However, we noted that proponents of the debate argued that after receiving counselling, if a woman chooses to have an abortion, this right should be respected. They also advised that post-counselling should be offered to women after they have had an abortion.”
It was also advised that a pregnancy crisis centre for women contemplating abortion — the Holy Innocent Crisis Centre in Kingston, founded by Father Richard HoLung, founder and superior general of the Roman Catholic Missionaries of the Poor (MOP) — offers shelter and counselling, as well as an option for the women to permanently or temporarily leave the children there for adoption, if unable to care for them.
The motion, which led to the committee's deliberations, was introduced to the House of Representative by first-time Government MP and former Olympic silver medallist Juliet Cuthbert Flynn, in 2018.
Flynn's motion urged the House to consider the recommendations of the Abortion Policy Group (APG), led by Dr Wynante Patterson, which in early 2007 advised then Minister of Health Horace Dalley to look at the high prevalence of abortion worldwide, including Jamaica, and the high toll in terms of maternal mortality and morbidity in countries where access to abortion is still illegal.
They also looked at the consequences of developing systems and guidelines to ensure that abortion is safe and accessible for all, including the need for systems and centres to effectively manage the complications and provide both pre-and post-abortion counselling, education and family planning services to prevent repeats.
The APG had recommended to the Government, led by former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, that the Administration “Repeal the relevant sections of the Offences Against the Persons Act, and substitute it with a Civil Law, titled 'Termination of Pregnancy Act', stating the conditions under which medical termination of pregnancy will be lawful.”
After the change of Government in 2007, very little was heard about those recommendations until they re-emerged in Cuthbert's motion in 2018.
Over the two years of deliberations the House heard from several prominent individuals and institutions — including the Jamaican Bar Association, Eve for Life, Carol Narcisse, the People's National Party's Women Movement, Shirley Richards, Ambassador Ruby Evadne Coye, Women's Empowerment for Change (We- Change), Dr Charles Royes, Missionaries of the Poor Sisters, the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA) and Dr Sheree Simpson, whose submission included a petition from 45 pro-life medical doctors who did not support the recommendations of the APG, and the Group of Committed Christians in Support of Abortion up to 12 Weeks.
The committee received 780 e-mails rejecting abortion, and 145 supporting the changes to the current laws, in addition to submissions and petitions.
One of the main amendments sought by the pro-abortion group was for the repeal of the section of the Offences Against the Persons Act of 1864, which states that any woman found guilty of deliberately forcing a miscarriage “shall be guilty of a felony, and being convicted thereof, shall be liable to be imprisoned for life with or without hard labour”.
The other members of the committee were: Fayval Williams (replaced by Dr Norman Dunn), Marisa Dalrymple Philibert, Zavia Mayne and Alando Terrelonge for the Government; and Dr Fenton Ferguson, Dr Dayton Campbell, Rudyard Spencer, Dr Lynvale Bloomfield, who was murdered during the process, and Michael Stewart for the Opposition.
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