Protecting Women’s Health is Crucial for a Healthy Society

As usual, I seem to have a lot to catch up on. The discussion surrounding safe abortions has been raised again in Jamaica recently by Jamaica Labour Party Member of Parliament Juliet Cuthbert Flynn – who is now State Minister in the Ministry of Health and Wellness and focusing on a range of issues, while Minister Christopher Tufton continues to fight with COVID-19.

Member of Parliament for West Rural St. Andrew and State Minister in the Ministry of Health and Wellness Juliet Cuthbert Flynn. (Photo: Jamaica Labour Party)

Good for Ms. Cuthbert Flynn, who is trying to inject more reason into the debate, at the very least, with stout support from another State Minister, Alando Terrelonge. It is two year now since Minister Cuthbert Flynn raised the issue, as a “backbencher.” Usually the fundamentalist Christian voices shout everyone else down; hopefully this time some progress will be made in terms of public awareness, also – they need to listen and understand.

The discussion will continue next week as the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI) addresses this critical issue.

Here is a deeply sensible regional perspective from the Antigua-based Caribbean Family Planning Affiliation (CFPA), a Member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). Who can disagree with this headline? It is also time for women to be allowed to decide what is best for them and their family, without being dictated to by (largely male) politicians and religious organisations. It should be a personal choice, don’t you think? Let us see some sense, and stop the unnecessary suffering.

After all, we are in the 21st century, and amazingly, women can think for themselves!

Protecting Women’s Health is Crucial for a Healthy Society

In one bold stroke of his pen, President Biden, a devout Catholic, repealed the Global Gag Rule (GGR), and extended a range of other actions in health, including funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). In an interview the President said that he ended the policy as part of an effort to “protect women’s health at home and abroad”.

The Caribbean Family Planning Affiliation (CFPA) has a high priority on the right of a woman to choose and be empowered to take control of her life and welcomes President Biden’s strident leadership in the face of intense controversy.

There is nothing like a leader who has the courage to rise above the tumult of the moment and act calmly in addressing the long term common good. 

Biden has distinguished between his personal faith and public policy. He has not allowed the noise of the religious right to interfere with his obligation to fashion public policy to serve the needs of poor, vulnerable women across the world.

His action will breathe new life into our resource-starved NGOs that strive to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights for all people.

The GGR, that cruel obstacle which has prevented us from providing counsel and services to women seeking to exercise choice regarding pregnancy, has been removed.

The need in the Caribbean is acute. By age 45, more than 60 percent of women in our region have had at least one abortion and most have had repeat abortions. For our region, involvement with abortion is a majority phenomenon for men and women.

Our widespread denial and suppression are stark signals of our deep pathology regarding this reality.

For poor women, many of those abortions are unsafe – driven by colonial laws and social stigma. Our restrictive laws force poor women into unsafe procedures from which they suffer serious harm.  The care of botched abortions is a significant drain on health resources.  This situation is both grossly inequitable and irrational.

We continue to cling to laws that our colonial masters rejected in 1967, just a few years after many of us became independent.

Our independence has not resulted in new power to women. Far from it: Our region ranks worst in the world in Intimate Partner Violence (IPV).

Only Barbados (1983) and Guyana (1995) have repealed the criminal law and established new civil guidance giving women control of their bodies.

In neither case did the fear of an explosion of abortions or so-called abortion tourism materialize.

Other countries, Belize, St. Vincent and St. Lucia, have expanded the grounds for legal abortion within the criminal law.

In Jamaica, there are renewed calls for women to have the right to make decisions regarding pregnancy without them or their doctors being criminalized. Among the voices calling for the change in the law are government ministers, Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn and Alando Terrelonge. We applaud the stance these political leaders have taken. We urge other political leaders to exercise leadership – not to hide behind the crowd. 

Recourse to a referendum is avoidance, not leadership.  We contend that a referendum should not be used to decide whether a woman has a right to decide whether she wants to be pregnant or not. A woman’s right to choose pregnancy is already guaranteed in our constitutions and the international human rights instruments ratified by our governments.

We urge our political leaders to look at the data that show the harm to women’s reproductive health.  We urge them to act with courage, to face the stigma and fashion new civil laws that give all women the legal authority to control their bodies.

The CFPA calls for Caribbean governments to act on their own declaration of Health Ministers in Nassau in 1974 and take urgent action to review the criminal law of abortion. Regional governments must move to protect the health of women and girls, repeal discriminatory laws and practices, and implement policies and mechanisms to enable women and girls to exercise their reproductive and sexual rights.

A tweeted photograph from February 2019 of a pro-choice demonstration in Kingston.

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