Abortion: No neat Society, the law and compassion

Society, the law and compassion

Howard Gregory

Sunday, November 04, 2018

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WITH the proposed review of legislation governing abortion in Jamaica the issue has been defined by some as a moral issue, and so it is to a large extent.

Defined in such terms it immediately brings to the fore judgements concerning right and wrong and around which there is no consensus in our increasingly multicultural and pluralistic society. Herein lies the basis of much disagreement and the exchange of invectives across a range of responses as some people insist on the absolute and eternal truth of their position.

Not only is it impossible to carry out a meaningful national debate in this context, but the Government, in making a decision, must be cognisant of the fact that it represents a society which is diverse in composition and moral positions, and that no single group, however articulate and powerful a lobby, can speak for everyone, and therefore occupy a privileged position in shaping our laws.

I write as a leader within the Christian tradition, but I am conscious of the fact of the diversity of views which originate from the religiously committed and the claim to absolute truth which can be asserted by segments within this tradition. It was only a few days ago that I was reminded of this reality as I read again lines from a leading clergyperson and publisher: “The religious quest is the deepest passion of our nature, because it is prompted by ultimate concern. Unfortunately, like many aspects of our history, religion has been dominated by special interest groups who claimed that only their answers were true and that everyone else was in error.”

While the society is one that will still support the notion that religion has a significant role to play in shaping morality and, by extension, the laws of the land, we cannot escape the fact that our society has experienced a level of polarisation and tribalism in recent decades which, while serving the interests of various individuals and groups, have served to stymie the development of consensus and social cohesion around issues of social norms and the moral principles which should guide the nation.

It is at this point that we come to realise that political commitments and the perceived benefits to be derived from political adherence and loyalty can be just as significant and divisive in the life of some individuals as their espoused religious commitment.

The stage for the national dialogue on the legalisation of abortion has been set by the tabling of a motion in the Parliament by Member Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn. The motion called on her colleagues to consider “the recommendations of the Abortion Policy Review Group, which was established [in 2005] to provide guidance to [Parliament to] allow women the right to choose”. Accordingly, she recommended that they “take steps to repeal sections 72 and 73 of the Offences Against the Person Act and substitute them with a civil law titled 'Termination of Pregnancy Act as [was] recommended by the Abortion Policy Review Group' from as far back as 2007”. The effect of this recommendation is that abortions would be “decriminalised” and women would be given the opportunity to choose whether to have an abortion and to provide the legal framework that would end the number of botched abortions and the mortality which may result from these.

This recommendation has been received with precisely the kind of plurality of positions which I have outlined, and has triggered a multitude of responses from persons and institutions identifying themselves or labelled by others as pro-abortionists and pro-lifers, even as we have to acknowledge that emotional responses and extremist views cannot be the basis on which laws are made for addressing issues that affect the lives of persons in such personal ways, and which are, for the most part, gender-specific in a society which is still strongly male-dominated.

The sanctity of human life is a fundamental principle of theological reflection and morality, not restricted to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and which operates as a guiding principle in such fields as bioethics as it relates to abortion, embryo research, cloning, genetic engineering, euthanasia, and others. It is also the basis on which such human experiences as violence, abuse, oppression, and human trafficking are deemed to be expressions of evil and injustice, and violations of the sanctity of human life and which must be opposed. Within this framework, then, it is clear that the issue of abortion is not just one for any single discipline or religious perspective to claim as the sole determinant of judgement on the subject. To that extent, any decision by the Government must also be informed by the perspectives which these disciplines bring to the table. It must also take cognisance of the findings of credible research data and the experience of human beings, primarily females who are both the subjects and the victims necessitating this review of legislation.

As we look to the Government to address the law as it relates to abortion, it must be borne in mind that the law, while having legitimate status, is not always an expression of justice and cannot be definitive of that which is compassionate towards those impacted by its enforcement. As a Christian, my perspective on this issue must be determined by the way in which Jesus addressed issues related to the law, its interpretation and application, as it relates to the life of people. In his dealing with the issue of the Sabbath, for example, he was constantly being confronted by those who would have him define his response to human beings by simply invoking a legalistic interpretation. However, whether it was in terms of the healing of a man with a withered hand, or the hungry disciples who picked some corn on the Sabbath to satisfy their bodily need, Jesus made it clear that a compassionate human response must be primary in dealing with matters of law. Similarly, when confronted by a crowd that was insistent that the woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death, according to the prescription of the law, Jesus took the high road of compassion, only to be abandoned by the legalists who knew what the prescription of the law required in that moment. And we need not doubt that that audience which brought the woman before Jesus was of male composition, and hence brought her without the man with whom she had committed this violation of the law. Now it is the case that the decision concerning the revisiting of the law as it relates to abortion, a gender-specific sensitive issue, will be determined by a Parliament made up primarily of men.

It is self-evident that the issue of abortion is one which is at base an issue which impacts primarily the life of women and that many of the voices which would seek to be prescriptive in this re-examination of the law governing abortion are male voices. Less evident is the fact that the issue of abortion surfaces in the life of many women because of the actions of males, at best consensual, at worse through violation of laws governing incest, the violation of trust between adults and minors, violence and rape. The prevailing climate in which domestic violence, gender violence, and the violence that is currently directed against our women and children, primarily girls, cannot go unnoticed in considering the issue of abortion. To adjudge all of these situations within which a pregnancy takes place as equal and to be addressed on the same principle, seems untenable, and an option for legalism which loses its sense of compassion. So a 13-year-old child, impregnated by her father or stepfather, cannot be treated in the same way as an adult who has made a bad decision regarding sexual involvement with an unfaithful partner.

In the lead story carried in The Gleaner of October 29, 2018 it was reported that the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA) has received a 20 per cent increase in the number of abuse cases being reported to its investigators, with some blood-curdling cases on the list. These cases include a three-year-old boy beaten to death, allegedly by a step-parent; another three-year-old boy who was burnt with a pot of hot soup thrown on him by his mother; a three-year-old girl who suffered a broken shoulder from an abusive mother; a six-year-old girl who was being beaten and left on the roadside at night; while another six-year-old girl was stabbed in the neck by her mother for spilling soap powder. All of this disturbs our conscience and awakens our sense of compassion, but what about the further statistics that of the almost 13,000 cases reported to the CPFSA between January and September this year, more than 230 of the children sexually abused were left pregnant? How should this inform the decisions taken by the parliamentary review?

There have been many commendable efforts at advancing sex education and fertility management within our schools and the wider society, even as these have had a focus on abstinence, faithfulness, and condom usage, and these need to be supported and strengthened further. So, while not advancing a position supporting abortion as a means of birth control, neither is there any attempt to retreat from advancing the need for responsible sexual behaviour — as suggested by some critics — nevertheless, the situation that led to this revisiting of the laws governing abortion still exists.

While we wrestle as a society with the problem of crime and violence, we must recognise that many of the young people who are so involved are children born as a result of unwanted pregnancies, even as the society pays lip service to taking care of our unwanted babies. They stand at our traffic lights daily and are involved in child labour, or they are just the sheer victims of neglect, abuse and human trafficking. Currently abandoned by the society, in many instances, or treated as punishment for their parents' sexual indiscretions or irresponsibility, our position on abortion must challenge us to look at the choices we have been making as a society and how the perpetuation of these embody and embrace life.

The issue before our nation and Parliament is one which points to the fact that there can be no meaningful engagement of it which does not recognise that human experience and situations cannot always be put into neat categories, or that there can be one answer for every situation. It is, therefore, not just one of a theoretical or philosophical nature, but one which affects deeply the life of human beings and, ultimately, all of human society, and which must usher in a legal framework which takes cognisance of the profound nature of the issues involved and which reflect a response to this difficult human predicament with clarity and compassion.

In the final analysis, there will need to be a legal formulation which will address the issue of abortion, but that will be articulated in such a way that it gives due consideration to the complex nature of human beings and the insights which a multifaceted and multidisciplinary approach has to offer. What could such a formulation look like if it is to embrace holistic approach to the issue of abortion and an attitude of compassion for those whose lives are involved?

This compassion must, at base, acknowledge the damage to human lives that currently prevails in the absence of an option for those women who decide that an abortion is the option which they want to pursue, and who are currently having botched procedures committed on them and resulting in serious injuries, and death in some instances. The current “criminalised” status of abortions, which is currently being circumvented in certain situations in which medical supervision is provided, even as there are those who must operate below the radar, with deadly consequences, must be a challenge to our attempts to justify the retention of the status quo by advancing the seemingly contradictory position of wanting to save lives.

Perhaps a revised legal and compassionate formulation of the law should include the following:

1. Establish a framework within which all authorised abortions should be undertaken. This would involve the licensing of specific medical facilities where such procedures are performed, and in which psycho-social and spiritual counsel is available to ensure that patients are aware of the reality of what is involved and are making a decision which is not coerced, but carefully considered.

2. A provision for minors who have been impregnated, and who should be the recipients of special attention, as this will involve criminal investigation, possible denial and lack of cooperation from the family unit, and an already traumatised child in need of support of a psycho-social and spiritual nature.

3. A provision to encompass those medical situations in which the termination of a pregnancy is indicated because of a threat to the life of the mother. These are conditions which members of the medical profession would help to define and in consultation with the patient.

4. A reviewed definition of the law governing abortion should define it not just in medical terms, as it involves the psychological, social, spiritual, and other dimensions of a person's life and should involve an interdisciplinary approach that is not restricted to medical personnel.

The law governing these matters will be framed by the Members of Parliament entrusted with such authority and who, it is hoped, will not just give an ear to the loudest voices in the society, but will take into consideration the various perspectives and experiences of people, even as they will be guided by their own consciences and moral and religious convictions. In the long run, however, may we arrive at a legal position that not only leaves us with a sense of being victors or losers in this matter, but a people who are compassionate in our dealings with the crises which confront one another in this very important area of our humanity.

Right Reverend Howard Gregory is the Anglican Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

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