Editorial | Personal whim and public policy
That Marlene Malahoo Forte’s mother rejected advice to terminate her pregnancy and the child she birthed is now Jamaica’s legal and constitutional affairs minister is a personal, heartwarming story for the people involved.
It, however, is not a sound foundation upon which to lodge public policy, or a cogent argument for denying women agency over their bodies.
Put differently, what Ms Malahoo Forte’s mother exercised was a right of choice. She chose to bear the risk and take her pregnancy to term. The fact that she and her baby lived should not mean that women in similar circumstances are deprived of the right to choose a different option. Neither should Ms Malahoo Forte’s control of Jamaica’s legislative reform agenda be used to frustrate meaningful overhaul of Jamaica’s archaic abortion law.
In Jamaica, terminating a pregnancy is, under almost any circumstance, illegal, for which a woman can be jailed for life. Anyone who helps her can be imprisoned for up to three years.
Yet, it is estimated that more than 20,000 abortions take place each year, the majority of them dangerous backroom operations involving poor and lesser-educated women, who sometimes develop complications. Better educated, wealthier women, with the ability to pay, can have the procedure done by private doctors in proper surgeries. Public policy, at various periods, has given a nod and wink to abortion without conclusively resolving the issue.
The decades-old on-and-off debate was revived in 2018 when government legislator Juliet Cuthbert Flynn tabled a private member’s motion calling for changes to the law.
NO SPECIFIC RECOMMENDATIONS
A parliamentary committee reviewed the issue but made no specific recommendations on the way forward. Essentially, it outlined the conclusions and recommendations of previous review panels, the most significant of which called for a repeal of the current law and replacing it with a Termination of Pregnancy Act, under which the termination of a pregnancy would be at the sole discretion of the woman up to the first 12 weeks.
After 12 weeks, and up to 22 weeks, a termination would have to be done in specialised facilities, supervised by specialist medical practitioners. Over 22 weeks, abortions would be allowed only in very limited circumstances, including if the life of the mother is threatened.
But in Parliament this week, Ms Malahoo Forte made clear that the Government was not inclined to antagonise the island’s conservative Christian churches with anything that would weaken the laws against abortion and buggery – both hot-button issues for evangelicals and other conservative religionists.
“This Andrew Holness-led administration is on no path to collide with the Church or any other well-thinking member of the Jamaican society on issues which define the fabric of our society, even in the presence of challenges,” Ms Malahoo Forte said.
The minister made it clear that she had a very personal and emotional stake in the debate, which raises the question whether her private preferences will prevent legislation in support of abortion getting serious attention during her tenure.
“I say to people that changing the law for abortion will never be my platform for the simple reason that my mother told me that when she was pregnant with me, at every stage of her pregnancy, she was told to abort me,” the minister said.
That Ms Malahoo Forte celebrates her mother’s decision and her own life, and the fact that “the abortion issue is not mine”, is her right. This newspaper respects that.
MUST NOT IMPOSE
However, she mustn’t impose her own values on others, or on every situation, regardless of circumstances or context.
Happily, despite whatever may have been the situation that complicated her pregnancy, her mother’s situation, and Ms Malahoo Forte’s birth, ended well. That was probably one of the occasional exceptions that defied science.
In most cases, doctors’ diagnoses run true. In any event the agency exercised over their own bodies by people like Ms Cuthbert Flynn, is preferred to the legislative fiat that Ms Malahoo Forte would seemingly wish to impose, or maintain.
In 2019, in the face of a tear-jerking spiel at a parliamentary committee hearing by an anti-abortion activist about how she carried her baby to term despite being ill with a brain tumour, Ms Cuthbert Flynn gave a counter-narrative of a 19-year-old woman with a brain tumour who chose abortion. “That woman is me,” she said.
Ms Malahoo Forte could hardly deny the legitimacy of that choice, and more importantly, of Ms Cuthbert Flynn’s right to make it.
The bottom line is that pro-choice should not be conflated with reflexive support of an abortion. It is about agency and ownership of a woman’s body and her right to access healthcare. These ought not to be denied to females.
In exercising free will, a good Christian value, women can make moral decisions about life, including whether they want to have babies. Or, within sensible guidelines, terminate pregnancy.