Abortion debate back at the forefront
Women’s rights, anti-abortion advocates tackle issue amid US Supreme Court ruling
AS THE thorny discussion surrounding abortion is reignited, opposing sides of the debate in Jamaica are relying on public education to convince each other of the merits of their position.
Just re-elected president of the People’s National Party (PNP) Women’s Movement, Patricia Duncan Sutherland, who is in favour of legalising abortion, said there should be conversation surrounding the issue to bring clarity to the decision-making process.
She said: “I think that we have to have the conversation in our country. There is a lot of difficult issues that we have to face and this is one of them. When maternity leave was being passed, most people were against it initially. They didn’t see the other side of the coin…
“So, a big part of our advocacy is hosting more conversation with the faith-based community and the people of Jamaica so that we can have real reasoning about it to understand why or why not.”
Duncan Sutherland declared that women having the right to abortion will be a priority for the PNP’s Women Movement.
The abortion question has once again been thrusted in the public’s eye in light of last month’s controversial decision by the United States Supreme Court to overturn the Roe v Wade ruling. This 1973 ruling granted American women the constitutional right to an abortion.
Locally, the question of whether to permit the practice has stirred heated debate once more on both sides of the political divide. In 2018, then backbench MP Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn tabled a motion in the House of Representatives for the Government to consider relaxing abortion laws.
Currently, Section 72 of the Offences Against the Person Act states that anyone found guilty of having or facilitating an abortion can be sentenced to life in prison, with or without hard labour.
Earlier in May, Cuthbert-Flynn was supported by opposition MP Lisa Hanna, who called for the House of Representatives to debate the report from the Human Resource and Social Development Committee that looked into the matter.
The report was tabled in March 2020, but subsequently fell off Parliament’s Order Paper.
Duncan Sutherland, who praised the actions of both women, endorsed the proposal made by Hanna. She expressed disappointment that to date this “concrete step” has not been facilitated by the Government.
She added that once the report is tabled and public awareness has been engaged, a conscience vote by MPs should be taken. This, in her view, would reduce “emotional decision-making”.
According to Duncan Sutherland, “It would mean that the Ministry of Gender and Culture, for example, and justice will come together, they will come on the road and they would host discussions … (and) bring parties together who support either position to be able to explain to ensure that real discussions can take place.”
However, the chairman of the Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society (JCHS), Dr Wayne West, is maintaining his opposition to women being given the right to abortion and hopes that public education will win widespread support for his position.
“Some of the things that we continue to seek to do is to bring that message to the Jamaican people. People need people, we need people, people are our future … and we want to make abortion unthinkable; something that people will gasp at the consideration,” he argued.
West is undaunted by the expressions of support for the procedure coming from members of both political parties. “There are individuals on both sides who have prevented or supported the removal of that right to life in our legislation in our Parliament and they have always been. We continue to be pro life,” West insisted.
West is optimistic that the recent ruling by the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade will galvanise both pro and anti-abortion forces locally.
“It is going to be an ongoing thing. The people who want abortion will never cease wanting an abortion and those who want the best life possible for mother and child will not seek to want that.”
He also rubbished the view that abortion rights represents a personal choice for women about their bodies.“It is an entirely false argument. This is not like eating vanilla ice cream or determining what you consume. It is about killing another human being,” he argued further.
In his view, the right to determine life originates with a “transcendent source” and it is not up to people to determine whether an unborn foetus should be terminated. He suggested that given declining fertility rates in the Caribbean, more emphasis should be placed on encouraging childbirth and ensuring that mothers and children receive the best life possible.