“It is interesting to speculate how it developed that in two of the most anti-feminist institutions — the church and the law court — the men are wearing the dresses!” — Florynce Kennedy
Prochoice: Respecting Human Rights
Since the 1970s, in Jamaica, Governments have skirted around and flirted with the de-criminalization of abortion. On December 11, 2018, the report of the latest incarnation of a Joint Select Committee reviewing the relevant Acts* was tabled in the Parliament. Importantly, the review was triggered in 2013 by a Private Member’s Bill tabled by then Senator Kamina Johnson Smith. The process stalled due to the 2016 General Elections and was regenerated in January 2017 due to another Private Member’s Bill by MP Juliet Cuthbert Flynn.
As a long-standing SRHR activist and worker in women’s reproductive health and rights the report missed the mark. First, it reflects the traditional non-action of the GOJ, in not upholding its human rights commitments, in this case the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls, as committed to in Cairo, 1994.
Second, it condemns to death, thousands of women and girls who access unsafe abortions. The research and multiple reports are already in! This signals a stunning lack of regard for and a ‘de facto’ devaluing of the lives of these mainly young women and girls, living in poverty. They are being treated as acceptable ‘collateral damage’, even as middle and upper class women and girls are able to access safe abortion services at home — a further slap in the face.
Government’s responsibility is to safeguard and ensure the full enjoyment of the human rights of ALL Jamaicans. Women’s rights are human rights. Lack of a proactive response effectively denies this. Why this lack of action and cowardice? Who is running the show?
Ethics, Public Policy & the Church
Please note that while I use the word Church for ease, unless stated otherwise, Church includes other faiths or spiritual beliefs such as Islam, Judaism, Rasta, etc.
A committee of Parliament is taking submissions on the report towards making a decision. Two things are worrying: the Church hierarchy seems bent on overtaking the process; and the chair of the committee is not seen to be neutral on the issue of choice, given previous statements and known affiliations. This undermines the credibility, integrity and fairness of the process. Integrity is called for in the interest of protecting the credibility of the process: Sound ethics require the chair recuse himself!
While the Church has a right to a voice on public policy, church hierarchy need to tread with caution. It must own its power and propensity to influence elected officials by affiliation, to carry the Church position. Elected officials are representatives of ALL the people in their constituencies. It is those multiplicity of voices that MPs must heed. This is their responsibility! Otherwise they will continue to evade the issue for fear of backlash at the ballot box, orchestrated by Church leaders. The only conscience vote should be the one arrived at with constituencies.
Let’s Talk About Sex! Lies! & the Church
Without a doubt, for centuries the male-dominated Church has grappled with issues of sex and sexuality. Roman Catholic history shares the conundrum of St. Augustine who drove the celibacy doctrine yet not celibate for most of his life. He questioned why we were given a sexuality and why was sex enjoyable even if only for procreation. He solidified the notion that we are born “in original sin” — SEX! Catholic historians muse that he would love cloning!
The solutions advanced by Imams, Bishops and Popes have been devastating for women, children and the LGBTQ community. The current situation is further exacerbated by the sharp rise in fundamentalisms across faiths. In Jamaica women and girls are not immune from the exigencies of male domination in their faith communities. As we now know, “Church” men, police and family members make up the majority of males perpetrating sexual violence against young women and girls as young as 8.
We have to question the notion of the moral leadership of the Church on issues related to sexual and reproductive health & rights. Church leaders are yet to fully own their responsibility for the sexual violence perpetrated against women and children — paedophilia. In some jurisdictions such as Canada, some of the children of the Indigenous peoples are just getting some attention for the sexual and other forms of violence, including forced sterilizations.
Jamaica is not immune from these allegations. But how effective can public policy be if principally guided by entities that actively participate in creating the problem, we pretend it is non-existent and resist dealing with it? Yet, women and legitimate medical practitioners can do “life”!
The Pro-Choice History Of The Catholic Church
The Catholic Church must be admired for its strong practice of scholarship, questioning by laity, and documentation of its history. This is why we know that there is a strong pro-choice history continued today by Catholics for Choice. Tracking the impact of the Vatican’s 1968 encyclical on birth control, sex, pregnancy and abortion, Humanae Vitae (HV), the latest Guttmacher Study Statistic on Catholic women’s contraceptive use, reveal that- 98% of Catholic women use birth control, not the natural family planning dictated by the HV!
Essentially the H.V. is a failed policy! In fact, CFC points out it has caused harm by increasing the incidences of HIV in parts of Africa!
Placed against the RC’s poor handling of the sexual abuse committed by Church representatives, the laity has followed authentic RC teaching that they have the right to act based on their own experiences, situations and beliefs — that is, their own conscience. They have owned their role as those who act “with sense and wisdom”. Will we?
On the issue of a woman’s choice, Catholics for Choice discovered these hidden facts.
The Jesuit Priest Thomas Sanchez in the 16th Century put in place one of the most comprehensive positions on sex, sexuality, pregnancy and marriage: Fundamentally, he pronounced, a woman has the right to have an abortion, especially in the early stages of pregnancy, if having the child will cause physical harm.
Definitions of physical harm included:
- Her family will harm/kill her if she’s unmarried;
- It negatively affects her reputation making it difficult to develop her life;
- If she’s engaged to one man yet pregnant for another;
- The foetus is not a person before it is born.
In addition, it was the Church’s view that Christianity includes Christ-like qualities such as empathy, support, kindness, forgiveness, understanding, etc.
When did Christians decide that punishment, judgemental and discriminatory attitudes, and ceding the right to choice and conscience to a patriarchal leader Christian praxis?
It was much later that A LIE was used to dislodge point 4. Scientists using the first microscopes could see how chicken eggs developed. Chickens look fully formed from the beginning and human development was assumed to be the same. However, when microscopes became more powerful scientists corrected this theory as they could now see that humans went through a much different process involving much cell division and development stages, a totally different process. However RC Church refused to inform the laity!
Church hierarchy lied!
Similarly in 1968 when the Humane Vitae was issued, the Pope actually had a conference of representatives from all parts of the Church: hierarchy; theologians; and laity. They voted 54—12 to adopt a policy of access to medically sanctioned birth control. As the Pontiff pondered for weeks, the minority 12 convinced him that if the birth control policy changed this would bring into question the Pope’s infallibility. A LIE! In which world are we? As Indicated, 98% of women in the Church answered!
Church leaders exacerbate the issue further with the disingenuous argument about championing the “rights of the unborn”, while dehumanizing and demonizing the women and girls. No recognition of the fact that not all women and girls have control over how and when they get pregnant!
The Real Deal — “My Body is Not a Democracy!”
Fundamentally, the issue comes down to this – respect for women’s moral agency, and their right to autonomy over their reproductive and sexual rights. Each of us has the right to bodily integrity – that is, have ownership over our own bodies. No-one can give this to us: we baawn (born) wid it!
As such, my body is not a democracy! I am its sole pilot unless I choose a “designated” co-pilot. Women’s rights are human rights! It’s high time for the GOJ to uphold its 1994 commitment.
- Joan Grant Cummings is a member of the Partnership for Women’s Health And Well-being (PWHW) & has over 30 years of experience as a Sexual & Reproductive Health & Rights (SRHR) Activist
* The Sexual Offences Act, the Offences against the Person Act, the Domestic Violence Act and the Child Care and Protection Act are the relevant legislation.