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Roe v Wade: Abortion laws in Caribbean are a colonial hangover and attempts to change them are under threat


Roe v Wade has created the international standard of women’s right to decide on the number and spacing of their children, say Caribbean campaigners

As concern mounts that abortion rights in the US could be pushed back decades, other countries are still living in the past when it comes to a woman’s right to choose, campaigners have said.

Policies in some Caribbean countries continue to be shaped by Victorian law, a colonial hangover from the British Empire, with activists warning they are having a devastating impact on women’s lives.

In Jamaica abortion is illegal in many scenarios, meanwhile a termination is allowed to save a woman’s life in Dominica and Antigua and Barbuda, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

It has been reported that women from the British Virgin Islands – a British Overseas Territory – travel to the US Virgin Islands for abortion treatment.

While campaigners in some Caribbean countries are calling for safe options for women seeking abortions, they say reports about the overturning of the 1973 landmark Roe v Wade judgment, which made abortion legal across the US, threatens to undo all their work.

“As they say: when they sneeze we catch a cold. It has an impact because it… makes the opposition more robust,” says Reverend Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth, CEO of the Caribbean Family Planning Affiliation (CFPA).

“We are very susceptible to the religious movements which seek to counter all that we have done regarding gender equality, women, their rights and their well-being.

“And who suffers? The most vulnerable, the poor women and girls in a region where we have one of the highest rates of gender-based violence.”

Imperial countries, including Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and Italy transported their own laws on abortion to their colonies, meaning that abortion was legally restricted in almost every country by the end of the 19th century, according to Marge Berer, coordinator of the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion.

In Britain, colonies were influenced by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which meant performing an abortion or trying to self-abort could result in life imprisonment.

Abortion remains a controversial issue in some communities, but Britain’s laws have progressed since 1861. In the following 100 years, attitudes gradually shifted and in 1967, abortion was legalised in certain circumstances.

In the Commonwealth nation of Jamaica though, abortion remains mostly illegal – unless for health reasons – and unsafe terminations are rife.

“Advocates in Jamaica have been trying to get the law changed for several decades or more. They just can’t budge the government,” Ms Berer tells i, adding the 1861 act and the 1929 Infant Life Preservation Act “serve as brakes on law reform”.

“Almost no former British colony has eliminated them and only one African country tried about five years ago as part of wider law reform but didn’t succeed. But those acts are still in place here too, they don’t stop abortions and they didn’t stop the 1967 Act being passed when it was ‘the right time’. So public opinion matters.”

Dona Da Costa Martinez, deputy regional director International Planned Parenthood Federation, says the Caribbean has “retained some of the more draconian aspects of the 1861 offences act”.

She said: “It is part of the colonial hangover, and it was simply imported under the criminal legislation that became part of the laws of the different countries.

“Because we are common law jurisdictions and case law in the UK has had persuasive value. It also means that we can use that jurisprudence to safeguard persons who do perform abortions.”

Ms Da Costa Martinez, who is based in Trinidad and Tobagao, added: “[Abortion] is legal in Barbados and Guyana and permissible in almost all circumstances in the Bahamas.

“The issues are really in the cases of Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica as they stand out in terms of their lack of exceptions.”

She is clear that any changes to Roe v Wade will have ramifications for the Caribbean.

“It has created the international standard of women’s right to decide on the number and spacing of their children. So, whilst jurisprudence in the US has low persuasive value, there is high moral value in a country like the US, having protections for those rights and helps strengthen arguments in the Caribbean that are so close culturally to the US. There is cause for serious concern. In terms of human rights, we look to the US for setting the standard.

“If this is overturned it will be a sad day not only for women in the Caribbean but all women, as we would have lost our bodily autonomy.

“However, I want to stress that the resistance movement inspired by the green wave in Latin America is also a strong influence.”

Ms Sheerattan-Bisnauth, of the CFPA, says many Caribbean laws on fundamental human rights “have their basis in the time of the British colonial system”.

“It’s had quite a devastating impact on the lives of women, given that in the Caribbean we have very weak health systems and infrastructure and also we have severe barriers to overcome, religious and cultural.

“It is definitely time to move ahead and break free from these laws which really deny… women their right to choose,” she says, adding the CFPA wants to ensure women are not forced to visit a “backstreet butcher”.


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