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The Woman's Right to Choose Back on the Agenda
By Ingrid Brown, IPS, 13 May 1999
KINGSTON, May 13 (IPS) - The growing number of babies being killed or abandoned at birth, has once again put the abortion debate and the woman's right to choose firmly on the agenda.
"If an abortion is properly done, nothing is wrong and the woman will be able to have as many children as she wants when she is ready. Nobody should decide for a woman whether she wants her baby or not," says one gynaecologist who requested anonymity.
Because abortions are now illegal, many women either resort to going full term with the baby and abandoning it at birth or go to unqualified persons, thereby endangering their lives.
For instance, Marie Smith was only 13-years-old when she became the victim of a date rape, resulting in her pregnancy. As the youngest daughter in a Christian family, who was doing well in high school, she just could not imagine having this baby. The only way out was an abortion.
This was easier said than done and nearly cost her life as the operation was done by a pharmacist in the backroom of his pharmacy in one of the inner city areas in Kingston.
Had she died, the pharmacist could have faced life imprisonment.
Under Jamaican laws, it is a crime for a pregnant woman to administer to herself any poison or any type of noxious substance or to use any instrument or any other means to abort a foetus. Is she does, she would be guilty of a felony and if convicted liable to life imprisonment.
Furthermore, if a doctor, or any other person carry out an abortion without justifiable reasons such as severe medical cases then this is an offense which also attracts terms of imprisonment.
Some say fortunately for many Jamaican women and physicians who conduct the procedure, prosecuting someone for having an abortion is not a priority.
Deputy Superintendent of Police, James Forbes, says he has never heard of anyone being arrested for doing abortions. "I think it is more a theory than something which is enforced," he says.
But then because abortion is illegal it is not very accessible or affordable. This has resulted in many young women, mainly those in the rural areas, resorting to drinking a wide variety of herbal mixtures in an attempt to abort the foetus themselves.
In the urban areas, the women tend to seek the assistance of persons not qualified to perform the procedure, such as pharmacists. This often results in medical complications and at times even death, as these untrained persons do not have the proper equipment or skills to conduct the procedure.
As a result of the botched abortion , Smith (not her real name) has had severe medical problems and may never be able to conceive another child.
"My parents didn't know anything about abortions and so it was my cousin who suggested that I could go to this pharmacist. We didn't even know that he didn't know what he was doing," she says.
Like Smith many other women complain of health problems resulting from botched abortions.
Ilene Thomas calls herself an herbalist. She says she often brews herbal mixtures to assist girls who become pregnant but do not want to have the babies to "get rid of the foetus".
"You just have to know which bush to boil together and if the woman just get pregnant this will help to wash out the baby," she says.
Thomas says that it is mainly teenagers who come to her for this type of treatment. "Sometimes the girls get pregnant while in school and the mothers won't let them keep the baby and so the mothers themselves take them here to me," she says.
Reports here indicate that in 1995, 13 cases of infanticide were recorded. Between 1990 and 1995 the figure was 35. Figures for the years following are not available, but there are some persons who argue that based on the number of stories which are now becoming public of babies being found abandoned or dead, that figure would have increased significantly.
There are also other cases where mothers give birth to babies and walk away from the hospital leaving behind their newborn.
A nurse who works at a counselling organisation, says in recent times she has been receiving many calls, especially from young girls who want to have abortions done.
She too is concerned that many women go to unqualified persons who are willing to do this procedure at a much cheaper cost than say a gynaecologist. The untrained person, she says, may charge a mere 100 dollars whereas if it is done by a gynaecologist or obstetrician it costs 300 dollars.
The nurse who requested anonymity says the equipment used by these 'unauthorised' persons usually results in the woman getting infections.
"When I used to work at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital many young women came to the hospital after they developed serious medical complications while having an abortion done by these untrained persons, " she says. "Sometimes they die."
One gynaecologist says he does up to five abortions per month at a cost of more than 270 dollars each. "I don't openly advertise it as one of the services which I provide but most people know that gynaecologists do these things and so they will come here to me," he says.
Attorney-at-law, Antoinette Haughton, is one of those persons who feel that it is time that the government does something about the illegality of abortion. "... Many women are put at risk when the state does not come forth and deal with an issue like this," she says. She however adds that it is not that simple, especially when there are so many lobby groups against legalising abortion. "
"Nothing will be done about it for now...," she says. "The society is too hypocritical and I believe that abortion should be a matter of choice."
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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