Jamaica’s Flawed Abortion Laws

Danielle Toppin

Illegal abortions are one of the top ten causes of maternal death in Jamaica. Safe, legal abortions are only accessible to those who can afford one. Existing abortion "common law" in Jamaica is ambiguous and differs than legislation on the books. Jamaica is in the midst of a heated abortion debate.

In past months, the proposed legalization of abortion in Jamaica has been hotly debated. Prompted by a report submitted to the Jamaican government by the Abortion Policy Review Advisory group, the issue of abortion has featured heavily both in the media, and in the wider community, with sharp lines being drawn between those who support the legalization of the act, and those who strongly oppose it. In public debates, the perceived immorality of abortion has been emphasized, with the church emerging as one of the main protagonists in the discussions.

In typical fashion, the key issue that has arisen in the debate is one regarding the rights of the woman versus the rights of the unborn foetus; with religious and moralistic values heavily influencing the cited reasons why the act of abortion should remain illegal. Ultimately the debate raises the issue of women's control over their bodies and their sexual and reproductive health; a debate that raises key sexual health concerns and nuances.

The act of abortion, as with many gendered acts that shape women's lives, typically remains clouded in a veil of secrecy. The clandestine environment in which abortion is situated is reflected in the legal and policy approaches to the issue. While abortions are legally governed by a 150-year old body of legislation which criminalizes the procedure, common law has allowed for the procedure to be done in specific circumstances. As such, common law allows for the termination of pregnancy in cases of: (i) significant fetal abnormality; (ii) where pregnancy would represent a threat to the welfare or health of the mother and (iii) in cases where pregnancy is an outcome of rape or incest.

This approach to the termination of pregnancy brings with it some major health care challenges.

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One of the more evident flaws in the common law which governs the actions of local medical practitioners is its' subjectivity. In instances that are not as clear cut as fetal abnormality or pregnancy as a result of rape, the physician becomes the main holder of power, determining whether or not women who fall outside of these predetermined categories can in fact terminate their pregnancies. What then, happens to those women whose conceptions may not meet the criteria for "rape"; but whose relationships may in actuality be fraught with power imbalances such as the perceived inability to enforce protected sexual intercourse?

An associated health care challenge also arises regarding the ambiguity in the existing legislation and the common law itself. Common law, which develops over an extended period of time on the basis of widespread practices is seen to sharply contrast with the laws on the books in Jamaica. As such, despite the mentioned criteria which allows for abortions in the specified circumstances, the fact remains that legislation takes priority over common law. This places not only the affected women in jeopardy of prosecution, but also the participating physicians themselves. Such an approach potentially impacts women's sexual health, as it could discourage trained specialists from performing the procedure, thereby reducing women's options for safe health care.

The effects of curtailing women's choices for safe reproductive health care are potentially fatal. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), some 22, 000 abortions are performed in Jamaica each year, collectively representing a significant section of the Jamaican population. This number is cause for concern when taken in tandem with evidence suggesting that complications from unsafe abortions are among the ten leading causes of maternal mortality in Jamaica, particularly amongst pregnant teenagers.

What this means is that for a large number of women, unsafe abortions performed by untrained and/or unspecialized physicians and practitioners are amongst the most accessible options for the termination of pregnancies. This fact is particularly dangerous for those women who may not be able to afford the high cost of having their pregnancies terminated by private and well-trained physicians.

This undeniably places working class women at particular risk. The cost of an abortion by a private physician can fall within the range of JMD 40, 000 (approximately USD 570.00), a cost which is inaccessible for the vast majority of working class Jamaican women. These women, without the alternative option of accessing the procedure within the public health care system – unless they meet the specified guidelines governing abortion – are often forced to access cheaper and potentially far more dangerous options.

The existing policies on abortion therefore privilege women of financial means, and in contrast, work to unfairly curtail the health care rights of working class Jamaican women.

Jamaica, as a signatory to the UN Millenium Development Goals, has undertaken to reduce maternal mortality by 2015, a goal that cannot be achieved if women are denied access to safe and legal abortion services.

While moral values and the right of the foetus are important considerations in the abortion debate, they should not supersede the right of the woman to determine how and when and if she will give birth.

State emphasis must therefore be placed on providing women with the information and support needed to make wise sexual health decisions, one of which could include the decision about whether or not to terminate their pregnancies.

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.


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