The issue of morality as it relates to sexual health is once again at hand in the Caribbean state of Barbados. In the firing range this time is the Barbados Family Planning Association (BFPA), coming under attack for publicly highlighting its provision of services such as abortion as well as counselling for those who have chosen to terminate their pregnancies. At the center of the controversy are news publications regarding the BFPA’s counselling services, as well as a press release regarding the association’s receipt of an award from the regional council of the International Planned Parenting Federation for “outstanding achievement in the area of safe abortion/termination.”
Focusing on morality in discussions regarding sexual and reproductive health care is potentially dangerous. The issue of what is considered to be right and wrong and/or appropriate versus inappropriate is a highly subjective one, influenced by variables such as class, race, philosophical beliefs, and gender. In the Caribbean, where our belief system has been so forcibly shaped by Christianity, a culture has emerged in which women who choose to terminate their pregnancies are typically seen to have committed a punishable act against God.
In Jamaica, there is a saying that women who are “barren” are being punished for having “dash ‘way babies” (had abortions). Such views are not limited to Jamaica and can be found throughout the region, and they do have potentially adverse effects on women’s access to safe sexual care. Women, and adolescent females, may opt out of safer alternatives for terminating their pregnancies for fear of being judged, choosing instead to utilize unsafe alternatives that may endanger their lives. More importantly, such attitudes help to foster a climate of fear and secrecy, thereby compromising women’s sexual health.
By linking abortion with sin, women who take this route are cast in the role of the sinner. Despite steps taken by many Caribbean nations towards ensuring women’s right to safely terminate their pregnancies, cultural debates which pit abortion against God omit two key factors from the debate: (i) women’s right to choose, and (ii) the psychological, social and emotional impacts of their choices – whatever they may be.
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The provision of access to abortions is not the same as encouraging people to terminate their pregnancies. There are a number of reasons why people choose not to give birth. It is simplistic to say that the issue can easily be solved by the use of condoms, abstinence or other forms of birth control. The complexity of gender often leaves many women feeling that these are not choices that they can make, so to negate their experiences, while chastising them for their choices leaves a large number of women twice marginalized.
In a cultural context in which women’s value is so greatly tied to their fulfillment of the maternal role, females who for one reason or another choose not to become mothers are seen to be abhorrent, and morality is often a key factor in this designation.
The decision to terminate pregnancy is a serious one, not to be taken lightly. Without doubt there must be a heavy focus on counselling alongside the provision of safe services, with emphasis being placed on the social, psychological and spiritual health of the mother. A rights-based approach centralizes women’s needs, while helping them to explore all of their options, and helping them to make the decision that is best, not only for their children, but for themselves.