Abortion, taboo in Jamaica, makes its way into island dancehalls

KINGSTON, Jamaica (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Abortion might seem an unlikely topic at a party but in Jamaica, it can be the subject of lyrics that get people dancing and singing along.

“If yuh never dash up yuh belly, hold up your hands,” a disc jockey might shout out in Patois, meaning “If you’ve never had an abortion, raise your hands.”

Abortions are known in Patois with the euphemism “dash weh belly” or dashing away one’s belly. Women who have had them are shamed and shunned in much of the island nation’s dancehall music.

One recent song describes women who have had abortions as “haunted” and followed around by “duppies” or ghosts.

“It’s an active part of the performance that takes place in the dancehall,” said Sonjah Stanley-Niaah, author of “DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto,” and the head of the Institute of Caribbean Studies faculty at the University of the West Indies.

Abortion is illegal in Jamaica except to save a woman’s life or preserve her physical or mental health under a law dating back to 1864.

But many Jamaicans, including medical experts, say it is quite common.

In Jamaica, well known as the birthplace of lively dancehall and reggae music, that music has won a reputation for extolling violence.

Yet it plays a role in enforcing moral codes, especially about abortion or sexual orientation, Stanley-Niaah said.

She traced the origins of the trend in abortion in dancehall music to a popular hit song in the early 1990s entitled “Murder She Wrote” about a woman with a “pretty face and a bad character” who had an abortion.

Despite opposition to abortion from dancehalls to its churches, the World Health Organization estimated in 2011 there were more than 22,000 abortions on the island of some 2.8 million people.


Nearly half of abortions are unsafe in the Caribbean, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based reproductive rights organization.

“The double standard that we have in this country is that persons who have money are able to get access to those facilities (illegally) ... and the poor are not able to do it, and so they get mutilated and botched by clinics that are not satisfactory,” Lisa Hanna, a member of parliament, said in a newspaper interview last year.

According to doctors and those with knowledge of the illegal market, an abortion typically costs about $120 to $200.

Those who cannot afford to visit a gynecologist might buy misoprostol, a drug used to terminate pregnancies, on the black market.

But many women do so without knowing the proper dosage, have no medical supervision and suffer side effects, experts say.

Michael Abrahams, an obstetrician who has been outspoken with his view that Jamaica’s abortion laws should change, said he has seen patients with unsuccessful and botched abortions throughout his career.

“So many people have had (abortions),” he said. “Between 10 to 20 percent of my patients have had at least one.”

Few in Jamaica are as vocal as he is about his “strongly pro-choice” position.

“It’s an archaic law and its unfair to women,” he said.

Other medical professionals, who did not want to speak on the record due to the sensitive topic, also spoke about seeing life-threatening, botched abortions in public hospitals.

Some women with unwanted pregnancies turn to traditional remedies such as herbs known as “dog’s blood” and “Guinea hen weed,” said Steve Weaver, head of the nursing school at the University of the West Indies who has studied traditional medicine.

“If it’s going to be done, it should be done properly. A lot of women are put at risk because of shortcuts,” said Abrahams.

The Jamaican National Family Planning Board said it is reviewing its position on abortion after appointment of new board members this month.

The stark contrast between public standards and private acts are a symptom of the complicated relationship many Jamaicans have with the topic of abortion, Stanley-Niaah said.

“I call that complexity, in some quarters, dishonesty because there is a total hypocrisy around how we treat issues in terms of the private domain versus the public domain,” she said.

“Where a family has a young teenager and they don’t want her future to be blighted by this occurrence, they immediately find the resources (for an abortion),” she said. “It is completely supported in the private domain.”

Public opposition has made discussion of changing the law difficult.

When Hanna said abortion laws should be reviewed, saying, “It really should be to the discretion of the woman,” her remark prompted a huge backlash and calls for her to be removed as the Minister of Youth and Culture.

“The mature conversations, we cannot have publicly,” Stanley-Niaah said.

“But we can silently support the issues where they suit us.”