The Jamaica Labour Party’s Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn, who moved a motion in the Parliament in 2018 calling for the legalisation of abortion, is again in the political spotlight, as we have reported in recent weeks. She was one of the panellists on a recent webinar organised by the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI) to discuss the issue and present their just published report: Coming to Terms: The Social Costs of Unequal Access to Safe Abortions.
For many parliamentarians, the personal is political when it comes to abortion. One of Cuthbert-Flynn’s constituents died of a botched abortion a long time ago, and it was since then that she pledged to try to enact change. “I am a parliamentarian, so first my role as a parliamentarian is to make laws and enact laws. That is my first job, and if I am not willing to do that, and look at laws enacted in 1864, then I am not sure why I am there.”
The CAPRI webinar garnered media attention with the “controversial” recommendation from the report that minors should be allowed to access an abortion on their own without the consent of a parent, because: “The requirement of parental consent or notification may delay young women’s abortion care, leading to more risky and costlier late-term abortion procedures, or even cause the young women to resort to illegal or self-induced abortions in fear of parental reactions…. While studies have shown that the majority of pregnant teens seeking to terminate a pregnancy tell their parents about the pregnancy, those who wish not to involve their parents may do it out of fear of abuse, fear of force to leave home, fear of disappointment, or a feeling of disconnectedness from their parents.”
This was one of CAPRI’s main recommendations in the report. The others were that public funding should be provided for those wishing to terminate a pregnancy to ensure that those who are most economically vulnerable have access to them, and that parliamentarians should be allowed a conscience vote in secret on the issue.
In making the case for these recommendations, the Director for Advocacy at CAPRI, Dr Leanne Levers, noted that globally, teenage pregnancy is the leading cause of young girls not completing their secondary education. She pointed to a study in Jamaica in 2013 which found that some 60% of teenagers who gave birth did not go on to complete their education and subsequently had another pregnancy during adolescence. “There are a plethora of negative consequences for women, children and society as a result of illegal, unsafe abortions. Conversely, introducing legal and subsequently safe abortions, has a range of benefits for these groups such as increased access to education, human capital and crime reduction,” she said.
CAPRI’s senior officer Christina Levy, who opened the webinar, pointed out that complications from unsafe abortion are the third leading cause of maternal deaths in Jamaica. “This has been acknowledged by the Government of Jamaica from as early as 1975,” she said, while noting that attempts at legal reform have been thwarted by strong opposition from some religious organisations. She noted that despite opposition, abortions are easily available – but with varying degrees of safety. She said that while the abortion debate is largely framed as a moral issue with reference to religion and human rights, far less attention has been given to the public health, economic and societal costs of unsafe abortions.
Dr Garth McDonald, senior medical officer at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital in Kingston, explained that where there are unsafe abortions, there will inevitably be health implications and burdens on the healthcare system: “The global evidence is clear that with a lack of access to safe abortions, the medical complications and all the other spin-offs, psychosocial effects which take place, especially for our teenage girls and impoverished women, are great to the society. It puts a woman in a position, especially in an era where there has been so much advancement in the movement of women and the greater role that women now play in our society, that women should be given the opportunity to have that choice; and for the State to provide for women who are unable to afford it.”
The CAPRI study reports that it is the island’s most impoverished women who flock to unprofessional outlets for unsafe abortions. Among them are many impoverished teenagers and young adults, some of whom are concerned about the disruption to their schooling or employment, and about how they would care for existing children. The study also highlights the lack of sex education among Jamaica’s teenagers, the extent of incorrect use of contraceptives, and sexual and intimate-partner violence as among the catalysts for abortion. One-third of women who have sex under the age of 15 report their first experience as being forced, the report said.
The report aims to clear away the rhetoric and provide evidence-based research upon which to make decisions. It shows that US$1.4 million is lost in economic output annually to care for women who have had unsafe abortions, which often leave psychological suffering in their wake. The costs of complications of abortion and of unwanted children, the report shows, are exponentially greater than the cost to the state of funding safe abortions.
Straight-talking Anglican cleric, the Reverend Sean Major-Campbell – reinforcing his long-standing view that Christianity is only effective so far as it is relevant to the lives of people – said church leaders who take a myopic approach on the abortion discussion are doing a disservice to Jamaican women. “Discussions on abortion should not be limited to religion and morality,” he said, “and if the churches are not prepared to consider the social implications of the practice, they best take a back pew and leave the discussion solely to the policymakers.”
“Something that a lot of persons are not aware of is that the position of abortion is not monolithic in Catholicism. St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas denied that the foetus in the early stages is a person,” argued Rev Major-Campbell, during the launch of the report. “It is just recognising that on these matters we really cannot depend on the quarrels that are taking place in religion and other spaces, and this is why it is important for Government to do the job.” He urged dialogue and a sense of humility among church leaders, some of whom create ‘enemies’ through arrogance and name-calling. “When it comes to human rights issues like access to abortion, it is a matter that the State needs to address. While we listen to the different arguments, we cannot be bogged down with the quarrels, and there are a lot of quarrels happening in the space of the church.”
Bishop Alvin Bailey, for example, openly opposes abortion and recently called on Prime Minister Andrew Holness to “rein in” Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn. Not much chance of that, is there.
Watch the CAPRI webinar, 4 February 2021.
SOURCES: Summary of the report on the CAPRI website, 9 February 2021; Jamaica Gleaner, by Corey Robinson, 7 February 2021 ; Loop Jamaica, 6 February 2021 ; Havana Times, by Kate Chappell, 14 February 2021