Hands-off on abortion

Abortion is a marginalised and controversial issue, which has no place on the political platform.

This was the consensus of several middle-aged and senior citizens approached by Express Online, in Port of Spain.

The Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English lists “insignificant”, “unprofitable”, “difficult to cultivate” and “barely adequate” as synonyms for the word marginalised.

However for many of the younger women questioned, the issue is anything but insignificant. It is untouched, though, by the powers that be.

In the case of politicians, taking another look at the country’s abortion laws may indeed be “unprofitable,” as the subject has been known to incite conflict and even violence in other parts of the world.

Yesterday, a top Government official said he was “very busy” but agreed to take one more question during a short phone interview. However, when he was told the topic was “abortion law reform,” he said quite quickly, “I am indeed very, very busy.”

The current gender policy also categorically states that it does not treat with the issue.

The Opposition Alliance has not made its position on the “marginalised” issue clear either.

While most of the anti-abortion arguments put to Express Online during brief interviews in Port of Spain with members of the public were based on religion, those on the other end of the spectrum argued that Trinidad and Tobago is a secular society where state and church are in fact divided.

The group, Advocates for Safe Parenthood: Improving Reproductive Equity (Aspire) has argued that abortions are happening in Trinidad and Tobago with or without the stamp of legality.  The group has stated that the women and girls who suffer at the hands of botched abortion jobs are not the only ones doing it…they are just the poor ones who cannot afford to go to a private doctor.  On its website, Aspire states: “The simple truth is that safe, medical abortion is very readily available for women who have the means to pay private practitioners.

“So for many, perhaps most members of our society, an unwanted pregnancy is not a problem: they already have access to safe services.  “Thus they have no need to make any demand about the need to change the law. The criminal law does not affect them. They are above it.  “The women who enter our public hospitals with complications day after day have limited resources. They have no voice. They have no political clout. They are silent victims of awful injustice.

“The law discriminates wretchedly and the voiceless poor are its quiet victims. Those who have voices are not hurt by the criminal law; and those who are hurt have no voice.”

The law

Trinidad and Tobago’s law states: “Any person with intent to procure her own miscarriage, unlawfully administers to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or unlawfully uses any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, and any person who, with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she is or is not with child, unlawfully administers to her or causes to be taken by her any poison or other noxious thing, or unlawfully uses any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, is liable to imprisonment for four years.”

It is also illegal to sell a drug to a woman if the retailer knows it will be used for the purpose of aborting.

However, a police constable who has been in the service for ten years and has worked in both Port of Spain and San Fernando, said he has never had to charge anyone for carrying out an abortion and had never received a call pertaining to someone reporting an abortion.

When asked why, he said: “Well I don’t know, it’s a crime of a personal nature. We know it is done, there was an incident when remains were found outside a clinic a few years ago, but no amount of laws will stop persons or protect an unborn child.  “And honestly, when we have to go see the condition some children are in after they are sexually and physically abused by parents who never wanted them, or treat them like they are for their own pleasure, that could make you cry.”

In instances where pregnancy threatens the life, physical or mental health of the woman carrying the child, abortion is not a crime in Trinidad and Tobago.

More dialogue

Aspire wants more dialogue on the law.

“It (the law) matters to all those poor women who cannot have access to safe services because of the restrictive law. It matters to all women who are treated with disdain when they seek medical care. It matters to all women who are abused in the process of receiving treatment for abortion.

“The truth is that the old law is not enforced. It cannot be enforced. The law is not an impediment for many levels in society that ignore it with impunity; but it is a source of great harm to many poor women and many young women.

“The absence of regulation also means that women are at the mercy of providers. There is no regulation and so no standards of care. Further, there are no guidelines for counselling. The criminal law is not a suitable source of regulation for professional practice.”

The firsthand account

Twenty-year-old August’s story (not her real name) supports the view that local women are having abortions, and those who can afford them are having them done with little or no repercussions.  August, who goes to the University of the West Indies (UWI), became pregnant early last year.  “I went to a doctor, I took a pill. The whole thing cost about $2000. My ex-boyfriend paid.”  August explained that she slept over at a friend’s house so her parents would not know. She was in a lot of pain and bled a lot, but within 24 hours it was all over.

The statistics

According to the statistics gathered by Aspire, despite the illegality of most abortions in Trinidad and Tobago, an estimated 2800 women had to be hospitalised in 1991 due to abortion-related complications.

In 1993, Aspire quoted the figure at 3,294 persons.

Aspire’s site also displays excerpts from the Ministry of Health’s Annual Reports, 1987 to 1990 and 1991 to 1993. An estimated four percent of recorded patients at the nation’s hospitals were admitted due to complications related to abortion.

The methods

Inserting hangers, the drug cytotec (used to induce labour), falling down stairs, getting a “good kick” in the stomach, bathing in salt and black pepper, and even drinking a hot Guinness are listed by women as common “homemade” abortion techniques they hear their “friends” talk about.

The aftermath

A surgeon from the Port of Spain General Hospital also attested to the “insane methods” which women use to abort, as well as the amount of medical attention it takes to treat with the women who come in suffering from infections, half done abortions and perforated internal organs.

The surgeon tells Express Online: “We have to do operations to excavate remains and clear infections. Sometimes they perforate the uterus. You have to do surgery to repair it. Sometimes the object they use also punctures the small intestine.”

He says a large percentage of the persons seeking treatment are teenage girls and unemployed women who have no access to money. They attempt “at home” abortions.

He adds that some persons go to the hospital after they have started the process. There is potential for them to go into septic shock, the surgeon explains, so the hospital has to finish the process as it becomes a threat to the woman’s life.

Pro-choice

Those who argue on the pro-choice platform state that under the country’s constitution, all individuals in Trinidad and Tobago have “the right to respect for his private and family life.”

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