Abortion and the ability to choose

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By Akola Thompson

FROM a young age, I was made aware that abortions in Guyana were legal. Growing up knowing this, I have never given much thought to the state of abortion laws in other countries, neither did I consider that ‘legal’ did not necessarily equate to ‘accessible’ in Guyana.Currently, in Trinidad, several cases of Zika have been confirmed. Seeing that it has been linked to microcephaly and several other foetal brain defects, women are once again calling for a change, or relaxing, of the abortion laws so as to give infected pregnant mothers a chance to abort.

I did not realize how heavily faith-based Trinidad and Tobago is, until I read statements from Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh concerning the possibility of allowing infected mothers to have an abortion.

Despite the evident reality of thousands of women dying or becoming sterile every year due to botched abortions, the minister maintained that abortion would not be an option for these mothers, as it still remained illegal. As such, he does not believe the small number of pro-choice advocates should overrule the vast majority of the population.

So it does not matter whether you are an adult who has been raped by a stranger, or a child who has been raped by a family member. It matters not whether you are along in your years and believe you have enough children, nor whether your contraceptives did not work; any woman who attempts an abortion is subject to four years in prison, so is the doctor who aided her. And those who would have known of, or encouraged, the abortion are liable to be sentenced to two years in prison.

Unlike many of our laws, which can be said to merely be there for show, this is not the case in T&T. An 11-year-old became pregnant after being repeatedly raped by her father, and there was heavy reluctance to have her do an abortion. A doctor, a mother and her sixteen-year-old daughter were even arrested several years ago because they were guilty of ‘inflicting’ an abortion.

Due to the fear of being arrested, many young women continue to devise means to end their pregnancy, one of which includes either self-injury or asking their partners to inflict injuries upon them in hope of terminating the pregnancy.

What the T&T elite, like so many others, fail to realize is that whether it is illegal or not, women will always have abortions. Therefore, the question should not be ‘should we allow abortions?’, but rather, ‘how can we make abortions safer for those who choose to go that route?’

Here, in Guyana, we can, to a certain extent, be considered ‘progressive’ in some aspects; we remain one of the few Caribbean countries in which abortion is legal.

However, the fact that doctors can only complete botched abortions, and cannot abort a foetus in a public hospital; and the fact that, after all these years, very few persons are certified to do the procedure and most of them reside in the city, make one realize that the “freedom” to choose is hindered by several factors.

There remains an evident lack in the provision of sexual education relating to contraceptive measures in the country. Even when such information is provided, contraceptives are often too expensive to be bought by poorer sections of society.

This often results in women from far-flung areas choosing to either take matters into their own hands, or go to a “bottom-house clinic.”
This was seen in the incident lately, in which a young woman, in the hopes of aborting her foetus, injected her abdomen with Gramoxone, ultimately causing her own death.

The stigma associated with abortion in most societies, even in Guyana, remains a hindering factor to women professionally getting rid of unwanted pregnancies, even if they could afford it. This stigma has been fostered over several generations, aided on by our deep religious values which we were forced to accept so many years ago.

We have been taught that our sexuality should mainly be linked to the fact that we can reproduce.

Aided on by the fact that many of these basic tenets are being protected by the patriarchal nature of the societies in which we live, the state, law and religion continue to seek ways to control our social and sexual lives. Too often, they succeed.

Yes, more sexual education needs to be provided, to ensure people know the options available to them and ways in which they can protect themselves. However, what we also need is an updated abortion law, in which women who cannot afford to go to private institutions will be allowed to go to public hospitals and carry out the procedure. The current law, which allows us women to go to a public hospital only after we have already botched our pregnancy, is silly at best and needs to be revisited.

So while Guyana can boast of being ‘progressive,’ it is a fact that lack of money, education and accessibility still finds many women dying and becoming sterile; and this is evidence that making a procedure ‘legal’ is not enough.