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Devout Jamaica debates green light for abortion after rape, incest

by Kate Chappell | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 25 February 2019 01:00 GMT

Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn poses for a picture, February 15, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kate Chappell

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Having an abortion - or even talking about it with a doctor - is illegal in Jamaica, except to save a woman's life or to preserve her mental and physical health

By Kate Chappell

KINGSTON, Feb 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Anna-Kay was 21 the first time she got pregnant, in her second year of university, and worried of the shame that would follow if she told her parents.

So Anna-Kay did what about 22,000 women in Jamaica do every year, according to government data, and broke the law. She sold her cell phone to get JM$20,000 (US$150) to pay for an abortion.

"I wasn't in a position physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and financially to be pregnant. It was a very, very lonely time," Anna-Kay told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It was a difficult decision for me," said Anna-Kay, asking not to use her real name, who is now 30 and has a young son.

Having an abortion - or even talking about it with a doctor - is illegal in Jamaica, except to save a woman's life or to preserve her mental and physical health, according to the Offences Against the Persons Act in the Caribbean nation.

Women can receive a life sentence for having an abortion - although this has never been enforced - and those who assist in the process can be jailed for up to three years.

But legal discussions underway could change that with growing acknowledgement that thousands of women do have abortions each year, by endangering their lives with backstreet operations or drugs, or paying doctors who will take the risk.

According to an Abortion Policy Review commissioned by the government in 2007 - the most recent figures - unsafe abortions were the third leading cause of maternal mortality among women in the nation of 2.9 million people.

A bill by parliamentarian Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn, of the majority Jamaica Labour Party, aims to decriminalize abortion by repealing sections of the law and replacing it with a new act which would allow for abortions in the case of rape or incest.

Parliament this month hears final submissions from the public then the Prime Minister's office will decide next steps.


This is not the first time the issue of decriminalising abortion has been raised in Jamaica, where religion plays a major role in society and culture, but campaigners expected this time the laws could be relaxed with opinion changing.

A 2018 survey by local firm Johnson Survey Research Ltd found seven of every 10 Jamaicans opposed abortion on demand but 67 percent of men and 82 percent of women thought that women, not the government, should have the final say on termination.

A poll last year also found 58 percent of Jamaicans supported amending the law to allow abortions following incest.

Cuthbert-Flynn said women needed to have safe options, especially poor women, who were disproportionately affected by the law, as they could not afford to pay for a proper procedure.

"There is a life sentence attached to (having an abortion), and those are punitive measures that definitely need to be repealed," Cuthbert-Flynn told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"I do know of women who have had illegal abortions, and one woman has died," she said, while citing another example of a 15-year-old girl left disabled after an illegal abortion.

Joy Crawford, a director of Eve For Life, a non-government organisation (NGO) that works with women and children affected by HIV and AIDS, said not only must the law be repealed, but it must ensure that women have the final choice.

She said there were many circumstances in which a woman may not be ready or able to carry out a pregnancy, including rape, incest, and being too young.

"What I do know is that the majority of the girls we see would rather turn back the clock," she said of the young women she worked with who became pregnant.

"Abortions happen in our country. It is no secret."


World Bank data shows Jamaica's maternal mortality death rate was 89 deaths per 100,000 live birth in 2015 with a U.N. goal to bring this rate globally down to less than 70 deaths per 100,000 births by 2030.

"To make amends to the existing law is important from different angles," said Dr. Pilar de la Corte Molina, a sexual and reproductive health technical advisor of the United Nations Population Fund.

"There is sufficient evidence that unsafe abortions are among the leading causes of maternal mortality."

According to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy group focused on sexual and reproductive health, the highest annual rate of abortion globally between 2010-2014 was in the Caribbean.

In that period 37 percent of pregnancies ended in abortion, compared to 25 percent globally, with one in four unsafe.

Legislation regarding abortion varies in the Caribbean's 25 countries, of which 13 are independent nations, ranging from a total ban in the Dominican Republic to permission when a women's life or her physical and mental health is at risk in Jamaica.

Dr. Michael Abrahams, a gynaecologist based in Kingston, said he saw women everyday in his practice who have had an abortion, including those with adverse effects.

"Over 20 years, seeing what women go through, nobody should force a woman to carry a pregnancy," said Abrahams.

But religious leaders in the predominately Protestant country have been vocal in their opposition, including Father Richard Ho-Lung, Catholic founder of Missionaries for the Poor, which runs a shelter for pregnant women and girls.

"It would be the beginning of the death culture," Ho-Lung said. "I prefer myself to die than to see kids aborted and murdered." (Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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