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Healthcare

FEATURE-Jamaicans share 'deepest secrets' in fresh push to allow abortion

* Abortion Jamaica website shares people’s experiences anonymously

* Jamaican law bans abortion with a penalty of life in jail

* Lawmaker Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn is pushing for decriminalisation

KINGSTON, Feb 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Midway through sex, Trishana’s boyfriend removed the condom she’d told him to use, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy and the prospect of life in jail if she was caught terminating it.

Trishana’s gynaecologist agreed to perform an abortion in his clinic after hours for about $300, although he could have been jailed for three years if caught.

“It was definitely was the right decision to make. I’m still a 20-something figuring life out,” said Trishana, who declined to publish her real name but plans to anonymously submit her story to Abortion Jamaica, a website set up last month.

In a region with some of the world’s most restrictive reproductive rights laws, young activists are asking Jamaicans to share their abortion experiences online in a bid to build pressure for decriminalisation.

Debate over the 157-year-old ban has been reignited on the island following Argentina’s landmark December decision to legalise abortion and U.S. President Joe Biden’s order to restore billions in funding for abortion services worldwide.

Lawmaker Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn introduced a motion in 2018 to change the law and a parliamentary committee recommended a conscience vote last year, but it was not put on the agenda before parliament was dissolved for elections.

Now a junior health minister, in addition to the public profile she has as a former Olympian, Cuthbert-Flynn said she is working with the health ministry to draft a policy to amend the 1864 Act, which will be brought to parliament to vote on.

“There are members of parliament who have been wanting to see the law repealed,” Cuthbert-Flynn of the centre-right Jamaica Labour Party, which won a landslide in the September vote, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I believe we do have more who would be willing to listen to the arguments and make a change to the archaic law against women’s reproductive rights,” said Cuthbert-Flynn, who had an abortion, aged 19, while also sick with a brain tumour.

About 22,000 women in Jamaica have an abortion every year, according to the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI), a think-tank which says poor women face the greatest risks with backstreet procedures and self-administered drugs.

DEEPEST SECRETS

The volunteers behind Abortion Jamaica, which has published almost 30 stories in its first month, grew out of Rebel Women Lit, a book club that has grown to include author meet-ups, spoken word, yoga and Netflix nights, both online and in person.

“These stories, if ever told, were whispers to our support systems - maybe a close friend, a sister, a partner, or a mother with whom we share our deepest secrets,” says the website, which calls for abortion to be seen as “a healthcare necessity”.

“For each story, we offered little, just to listen. Listen and not impose silence on their experiences.”

The website links to information about the different kinds of safe abortion, how to support a friend who has had an abortion and local advocacy groups supporting decriminalisation.

Abortion Jamaica also plans to share audio stories from the older generation, said Jherane Patmore, 27, founder of the website, which grew out of her 2018 blog Abortion Monologues.

“Enough people don’t talk about it and I feel very, very strongly that women need to be able to make these choices about their own bodies,” said Pamela, who is 74 and plans to submit her abortion story soon.

Some of the tales are graphic - detailing pain, suction sounds and blood - and many detail women and girls’ guilt and loneliness, including a 16-year-old who had an abortion the day before her high school graduation.

“If we can understand the people who are actually having it, we can change the conversation,” said Patmore.

UNBORN CHILD

Cuthbert-Flynn believes opinions are gradually changing, with women holding a record 29% of seats in parliament while several male lawmakers have indicated their support for reform, including opposition health spokesman Morais Guy, a doctor.

“Women are dying at home,” Cuthbert-Flynn said, describing how one of her constituents died from blood loss.

“It is happening and we do not know.”

The prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Health minister Christopher Tufton said he would support a conscience vote in parliament.

“It is an important public health issue requiring a holistic public health response,” he said.

But religious leaders in the predominantly Protestant country remain firmly opposed to abortion. A petition rejecting a conscience vote by the Love March Movement, a Christian youth group, has attracted about 13,000 signatures.

“I think that abortion is wrong and nobody should be given permission to do an abortion,” said Reverend Alvin Bailey, chairman of Jamaica CAUSE, which represents churches.

"We are prepared to do whatever we can do to give the unborn child a voice and representation and a chance to live." (Reporting by Kate Chappell; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)

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