On a sidewalk lining a busy street in Kingston, five young activists parched slowly in the heat. As cars whizzed by, they held homemade signs that were scraps of cardboard jazzed up with bright colours that read “No religion in my womb!”
In recent months, small protests like that one in Kingston in February have bubbled to the surface in deeply Christian Jamaica, where the simple act of mentioning abortion to a doctor is currently against the law.
But now, several ministers in the country’s parliament are considering bringing the decision of whether to decriminalize abortion to a public referendum this year, emboldened by regional neighbor Argentina’s recent success in legalizing abortion in December 2020.
Legislators have toyed with the idea of decriminalization before, most recently in 2019, but all measures have so far fallen flat. Last year, a record number of women were elected to parliament, now making up 28 percent of the seats, which is why, say observers, the chance of decriminalizing the termination of pregnancies may be gaining more momentum.
Under the current law, getting an abortion in Jamaica can result in life imprisonment, and anyone giving advice about abortion or assisting in the procedure can face up to three years behind bars. These laws are rarely enforced, according to Jamaican pro-choice activists, but are a constant source of fear for those seeking to end their unwanted pregnancies. Doctors have been arrested sporadically and sent to jail over the past ten years for providing abortions.
Despite the fear of life-long incarceration, women undergo roughly 22,000 illegal abortions per year in Jamaica, according to the Caribbean Policy Research Institute. They often end their pregnancies using clandestine networks to get hold of ulcer pills, misoprostol, that provoke miscarriages. Most of these abortions are hidden, quiet, and expensive. Women have to find someone who sells the pills, find the ninety dollars for the medication and then endure several days of pain as they take effect. All the while, they have to keep the procedure secret to reduce the risk of prosecution.
In January, as discussion around abortion began to swirl once again in Jamaica, a women’s book club decided to create a blog where dozens have recounted their experiences of illegal abortion. “I went the bandooloo [black market] way and as expected I almost died… That was the worst night of my life… I ended up at the hospital,” one woman wrote.
“A lot of people don’t want to risk going to prison for life, so they will do very dangerous things to get rid of a pregnancy. There is the very sick idea of drinking Coca-Cola with a rusty nail - that’s common. A lot of people get really ill,” Jherane Patmore, the curator of the Abortion Jamaica blog, told VICE World News.
Botched abortions, and their resulting medical complications, cost Jamaican taxpayers millions of dollars per year, according to this year’s report on the issue. “Given that up to 43 percent of the complications in early pregnancy may be due to attempted termination, the cost to the Jamaican public health system is large,” it said.
The release of the report as well as Argentina’s legalization of abortion prompted several members of parliament to come out in support of repealing the anti-abortion law, while the Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, has remained conspicuously silent. Holness has suggested holding a referendum this year to address the decriminalization of abortion, marijuana, and homosexual activity.
“It doesn’t need to go to a referendum. I don’t think the Jamaican population is aware of all of the nuances of what this is about - you would have to educate and our illiteracy rate is very high. It would take a long time,” Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn, the Minister of Health and the most prominent pro-choice voice in the government, told VICE World News. This is why a secret-ballot vote in parliament is favored by activists, rather than a public referendum, which could be more likely to strike down the measure, according to polls.
“I think it would pass [a vote in parliament]. We have enough members in parliament to actually make that happen this year. We will start the process next week and take things one step at a time,” Cuthbert-Flynn said. She lamented the fact that data has been published since 2009 recounting the negative effects of low access to abortion, but nothing had been done to remedy the issue.
“There has been a change in the dialogue in the past month,” Patmore said. “A lot of people are realizing that life imprisonment doesn’t make sense.”
Powerful church groups have reacted to the new conversation surrounding the decriminalization of abortion with vigor, organizing mass gatherings, despite the pandemic, to oppose the issue.
“A few misguided individuals, in spite of indisputable biblical references, choose to blaspheme the Word of God for popularity and recognition,” Bishop Dr Alvin Bailey, chairman of Jamaica Churches Action Uniting Society for Emancipation (CAUSE), an organization advocating for Christian values, said in a statement.
Another prominent church leader, Reverend Dr. Peter Garth, accused the Caribbean Policy Research Institute behind the report of inflating its estimate of abortions per year and vowed to “march on parliament” if a bill to decriminalize abortion passes. “Governments the world over, including our government, feel that they can go and hide in Parliament and make decisions for our country.”
“It is a culture of death,” he said. “We will motorcade when we can’t march, if it is necessary.”