(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 28 January 2012)
I have never written about abortion before because I attempt to steer clear of polarising subjects. However, since women are dying and allegations are circulating about the rape of women seeking abortions, now seems like a good time to address this sensitive issue.
The World Health Organization defines unsafe abortion as a procedure for terminating a pregnancy that is performed by an individual lacking the necessary skills or in an environment that does not conform to minimal standards.
Abortion is legal and available in Guyana under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, which became operational in early 1996. In fact, Guyana and French Guiana are the only countries in South America where the procedure is legal without any restrictions, according to the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.
That much is good for the health of nation’s women. However, there are other issues that may prevent women from taking advantage of this safer medical option.
For example, the cost of getting an abortion by a state authorised doctor in an authorised facility is prohibitive for many women. This means that some women will then seek out medical treatment from “others” and the consequences can be life threatening – as we recently saw when a young mother, who was four months pregnant, died from a botched abortion as a result of a perforated uterus and acute peritonitis.
Also, access to medical services for terminating pregnancies that are within a reasonable distance to women when needed is another problem since there are only 11 doctors in the whole country who are authorised to perform the procedure and many of them are based in Georgetown.
It is not enough to simply make the procedure available, the matter of money and accessibility (distance) must also be considered for the health of the nation’s women. Otherwise, this is just an exercise in futility.
In a January 8 Stabroek News article, entitled “Lack of education could be cause of women seeking pregnancy terminations from uncertified doctors, Teixeira says,” former health minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy said, “The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was ‘carefully drafted’ after layers of consultation with various stakeholders in the society. The preamble to the Act states that it sought to ‘…reform the law relating to medical terminations of pregnancy, to enhance the dignity and sanctity of life by reducing the incidence of induced abortion, to enhance the attainment of safe motherhood by eliminating deaths and complications due to unsafe abortion, to prescribe those circumstances in which any woman voluntarily and in good faith wishes to terminate her pregnancy may lawfully do so and to provide for matters connected therewith.’”
With cost and accessibility of this particular medical procedure standing in the way, one cannot help but wonder if there is indeed an enhancement in “the dignity and sanctity of life by reducing the incidence of induced abortion” and just how much the act has enhanced “the attainment of safe motherhood.”
Presidential Advisor on Governance Gail Teixeira, who was minister of health at the time the bill was passed, suggested in the same Stabroek News article that “women’s organizations should do more sensitization on the Act and wondered whether members of those organizations are educated about the its provisions. She noted that when the Act was being drafted the women’s organisations played an integral role, but she was not sure if members who were not around then are fully aware of the Act.”
I can say that I have been reading about and writing on women’s issues in Guyana for years and did not know about the Act. However, although I agree with Teixeira that women’s organisation can and should play a vital role in educating women on important issues such as this, the government also must step up and do its part. Ideally, the government and women’s organisations working together would be the most effective way to disseminate the information to women.
In a January 20 Bloomberg Business Week article, entitled “Countries Banning Abortion See Higher Rates of Unsafe Procedures,” Gilda Sedgh at the Guttmacher Institute in New York said, “A liberal abortion law alone does not ensure the safety of abortions. Other necessary measures include the dissemination of knowledge about the law to providers and women, the development of health-service guidelines for abortion and the willingness of providers to obtain training and provide abortion services.”
As it is, a framework for safe abortions may exist in Guyana, but cost, accessibility and lack of knowledge about that established framework prohibits women from taking advantage of it. To top it all off, allegations circulating of the rape of abortion patients will cause even more pause to women. (By the way, why does it seem like rape and violence against women are everywhere lately? Even in the corridors sworn to protect and never do harm to women!)
Here is an interesting note I recently read: “Not only is abortion one of the safest medical procedures in the country [US], but it is also one of the most common. The belief that there’s a certain ‘type’ of woman who chooses abortion is as outdated as it is ignorant. In fact, by age 45, over one-third of American women will have had an abortion. These women represent all racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, political, and religious backgrounds. They are women we know, and women we love.
They are our sisters, our daughters, and our mothers. Chances are, you either know and love a woman who has had an abortion…or you are one yourself.”
The ability to access safe and legal abortion has been critical for many women as they seek to define and live their lives with dignity. Women are capable of making intelligent and conscientious decisions about their own lives and families.
The next step is to make sure women are educated about their rights on this issue and find a way to make that right affordable and accessible.