KINGSTON, Jamaica, Feb 12 (IPS) – It was a joyful, tearful celebration in the early morning hours of Dec. 30, 2020 for countless Argentinians when they heard the news: the senate had legalized terminations up to 14 weeks of pregnancy. Prior to this, activists have said that more than 3,000 women died of botched, illegal abortions since 1983. And across the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region, this renewed sense of optimism was compounded after President Joe Biden rescinded what is known as the “global gag rule,” which essentially denied funding to international non-profit organizations that provided abortion counseling or referrals.
Now, women and campaigners across LAC are hopeful that these developments will spur lawmakers to consider decriminalizing abortion in their countries, sparing women their lives, economic well-being, dignity and access to a range of options to make the best choice for their reproductive and overall health.
The LAC region has some of the most restrictive legislation in the world.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a health policy and research organization based in New York, between 2010 and 2014, 6.5 million induced abortions were performed every year. In this region, 97% of women live in countries with restrictive abortion legislation, yet 46% of an estimated 14 million unintended pregnancies end in abortion. About 60% of those were considered to be “unsafe.”
When asked if there is a sense of hope that Argentina’s legislation will spur change in the rest of the region, Tonni Brodber, Representative UN Women, Multi Country Office Caribbean, says there are encouraging signs. “I hope so. Right now we are in the middle of a pandemic, people are struggling with recovery and trying to manage day-to-day life in a pandemic, but there is a lot of support for what has happened within the spaces of women’s organizations.” She added that it “is a difficult conversation, so it will be debated for a long time,” adding that human rights should be centred and stakeholders should focus on the lessons learned from Ireland and other countries, as well as on empathy and shared goals. She noted that Jamaica like all CARICOM countries is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, Article 16 of which speaks to the right to reproductive freedom.
(CEDAW (article 16) guarantees women equal rights in deciding “freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights.” CEDAW (article 10) also specifies that women’s right to education includes “access to specific educational information to help to ensure the health and well-being of families, including information and advice on family planning.”)
In Jamaica, where abortion is criminalized by a possible life sentence with or without hard labour (except to save a woman’s life or preserve her mental and physical well-being) Brodber says it is a hopeful sign that both male and female leaders are prioritizing the issue. “It can be motivational for a lot of persons who may feel that these issues are not prioritized.” Several MPs, including one male, have voiced support for repealing the legislation.
Jamaicans have been debating this issue for decades without resolution, and like Argentina and Ireland, faces strong opposition to any less restrictive legislation from the Church. This is similarly the case across the region.
Barbados, Belize, St. Vincent and the Grenadines allow abortion to save a woman’s life as well as mental health and socio-economic well-being. Cuba, Guyana, Uruguay and Peurto Rico all allow abortion without restrictions. It is still not permitted for any reason in six countries, while nine others only allow it for the purpose of saving a woman’s life, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn is state minister in the ministry of Health and Wellness for the majority Jamaica Labour Party. In 2018, she tabled a motion to repeal the legislation that criminalizes termination. It has been debated at the committee level, but the motion died on the order paper with the dissolution of parliament last September for an election. Cuthbert-Flynn says she is working at the policy level to advance the issue again. In the meantime, women are still suffering, she says. “These are the women showing up with complications from a botched abortion,” she says. “I think us as parliamentarians need to understand our role and debate laws even if it is going to cause controversy.”
Natalie Campbell Rodriques, a Senator for the majority Jamaica Labour Party, concurs.
“Personally, my own views are that this is something we should bring to the table to the debate, especially for women, our bodies being policed is not something that sits well with me,” she says.
Unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of maternal mortality in Jamaica, and according to estimates, anywhere from 6,000 to 22,000 women a year terminate a pregnancy. While it appears nobody has received any jail time, at least one doctor has been arrested for performing a termination on a 12-year-old girl.
While the UNFPA does not promote abortion, it seeks to decriminalize it, prioritize family planning efforts, and to handle the consequences of unsafe abortions, efforts that are all centred on a common understanding of human rights that has been enshrined in several treaties and agreements.
“I think we have to be honest this is not a straight cut and dry issue,” says the UNFPA’s Brodber. “It is a difficult conversation, so it will be debated for a long time. We are still not prioritizing yet the same common understanding of human rights and women’s rights in particular,” she says, adding that Jamaica is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, which highlights the right to reproductive freedom.
The implications of the restrictive legislations have many consequences, from the stigmatization of the women who terminate their pregnancies, to the financial and emotional costs, to the potential health risks. The legislation also disproportionately affects poor and rural women, who do not have the same access as their wealthy counterparts in urban areas.
Over the past several years, a Jamaican activist has been collecting stories from women who have had an abortion. One of these women describes having two abortions, one in 2015 and one in 2107.
“I went the bandoloo way and as expected I almost died… The pain I felt that night I could have push my head through a grill and not feel it. That was the worst night of my life,” the woman writes.
These are the stories that bring the issue to life, beyond the numbers, and a report released on Feb. 4 makes clear the reality.
Leanne Levers, director of advocacy at the Caribbean Policy and Research Institute, which just released the European Union-funded report called “The Cost of Unequal Access to Safe Abortion in Jamaica,” says that the legislation has dire consequences: “People are having abortions regardless of the legality, and they are being done in a way that is unsafe and have serious health and social complications for women, children and wider society, which comes at an economic cost.”
CAPRI’s report made three major recommendations, including a secret conscience vote to decriminalize abortion and make it legal upon request; the access to abortion by minors without parental consent and publicly funded abortions.
The report, which aims to clear away the rhetoric and provide people with evidence-based research upon which to make decisions, also found there is a cost of US$1.4 million in lost economic output to care for women who have had unsafe abortions. One of Cuthbert-Flynn’s constituents died of a botched abortion, and she has pledged to continue 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 so if I am not willing to do that, and look at laws enacted in 1864, then I am not sure why I am there.”
For her part, Cuthbert Flynn feels hopeful that Argentina’s legislation can help to spark change, but she says people need to make their voices heard, especially in light of a very vocal lobby against decriminalization from groups representing Jamaica’s churches. She says she has had some threats on social media, but none to her person.
“I think civil society needs to come up and speak out, with the church speaking out. We are hearing more and more voices out there, but they need to do like Argentina. People really came out and rallied for this, and tried to make it happen. I was shocked with them and Ireland to see a society that was Catholic (change legislation). It took the people to really come out and galvanize.”
Women’s rights activist Nadeen Spence says that threats from the church to march in protest of abortion and vote out supportive politicians are irrelevant.
“I’m not even concerned with the church, I’m concerned with what I see as the laziness of our politicians.”
Elsewhere in the region, Dominican Republic shares the distinction with Jamaica of the most restrictive legislation in the world.
Abortion is completely illegal, and women who induce abortions can be jailed for up to two years, while medical providers face up to 20 years. Selene Soto, senior attorney at Women’s Link Worldwide, an NGO that focuses on human rights, says Argentina’s recent legislation “We think that in general, that has had an impact, because these issues are important, and they are still on agenda because of what happened in Argentina,” she says. Activists in the Dominican Republic are lobbying for, at the minimum, an inclusion of three exceptions in which the ban on abortion could be lifted: rape, the life of the mother is in danger and the fetus is not viable. “We think that a total ban or restriction is against human rights standards that have been very well established by several international mechanisms,” says Soto.