Dr Sandra Knight, chair of the National Family Planning Board (NFPB) — the Government agency with the broad mandate to promote sustainable family planning practices and access to such services in the country — is advocating the legalisation of elective abortions in Jamaica.
Section 72 of the Offences Against the Person Act says anyone found guilty of having or facilitating an abortion could be sentenced to life in prison, with or without hard labour. But arguing that the illegality is sending people underground and is almost forcing young girls to procure unsafe procedures, Dr Knight said it’s time that the law be changed.
The question had hardly left the lips of this reporter at yesterday’s Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange when Knight answered “Yes!”
“It’s time. Why not? It’s happening anyway,” she reasoned.
Dr Knight acknowledged that her point of view was influenced by the country where she pursued her medical studies (Cuba), and where abortions are legal. That notwithstanding, she said scientific data show that the incidence of botched procedures which endanger women’s lives is higher in countries which outlaw the practice than in those that don’t.
“Let’s look at countries that have legalised abortions. Number one: the complications of botched abortions are astronomically less. You may think it’s a simple matter, the number of persons that turn up to hospitals or who have problems with abortions that were botched, not only by health care providers, but also by themselves, from drinking (caffeinated sodas), standing on their heads, using hangers. We have a lot of complaints, [and] they are expensive to treat,” Knight said.
“The data show that the number of pregnancies reported does not increase if abortion is legalised, and the number of young people that report that they are sexually active does not increase either. So when we look at the concerns of Jamaicans: One, ‘If we legalise abortions we are telling our kids to have sex’, the data does not support that, globally. And two, ‘More people are going to get pregnant because they know they can get an abortion’. Listen, nobody I know who has had an abortion has enjoyed having an abortion. Nobody!”, Dr Knight said.
Commenting on the debate about when a foetus becomes a child and abortion being akin to murder, Dr Knight said religion and politics cannot be taken into account when making public health decisions.
“We have to think of what’s best for the population and in terms of the public health. So, as much as I’m a parson pickney, I can’t bring my parson pickney (mentality) into the job that I have to do,” she said.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported in a 2006 publication that 46 million abortions are performed each year, nine million of which are done outside the legal system and “considered unsafe because they are performed by people who lack the necessary skills, or in places that do not meet medical standards, or both”. It said, too, that worldwide, one in 10 pregnancies end in unsafe abortions and that 13 per cent of pregnancy-related deaths worldwide are caused by unsafe abortions.
“Two in five unsafe abortions occur in women under age 25, and about one in seven women who have unsafe abortions is under 20,” the WHO said.
The number of unsafe abortions carried out in the Caribbean each year is 100,000, according to WHO.
Locally, there is no reliable data on the subject, Dr Knight said, since there is no monitoring of the procedures in the private sector, which is where the majority of cases are handled; and in the public sector, they are only done if there is imminent risk to the mother’s life or if the foetus is deemed to be unviable.
Knight’s call for a revision of the anti-abortion law is not inconsistent with the position of the political administration as minister of youth and culture Lisa Hanna expressed similar views in her sectoral debate last year.
Also, it was under a People’s National Party Administration that the Ministry of Health, then lead by John Junor, set up the Abortion Policy Review Advisory Group. It found, among other things, that most of the women seeking illegal abortions in Jamaica were “young, poor, unemployed and live in economically and socially deprived communities”.