By NOELLE NICOLLS
Tribune Features Writer
Although abortion is currently illegal in the Bahamas, the government revealed that it is aware of cases where licensed physicians perform abortions in private and public hospitals for justifiable reasons.
Such abortions are made possible because “the law is interpreted very liberally”, according to a report submitted by the government last month to the international committee of the United Nations governing discrimination against women.
During its fifth periodic report to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the government stated that abortions are performed in the Bahamas on “grounds of foetal deformity and rape or incest, as well as on health grounds”. CEDAW is an international human rights treaty that focuses on women’s rights and women’s issues worldwide, ratified by the Bahamas in 1993.
“Abortions are usually performed within the first trimester, although they are often allowed up to 20 weeks of gestation. The abortion must be performed in a hospital by a licensed physician. Government hospitals bear the cost for non-paying patients,” states the government’s CEDAW report, which is available online.
Despite the report’s detailed account of the practice as it occurs in the Bahamas, the Bahamian government “avoided answering specific questions” posed by the experts on the CEDAW committee about the availability of statistics regarding state-sanctioned abortions, according to observers.
“Their fall-back position that abortions are illegal was inadequate, because the committee was not asking about illegal abortions. The committee was asking for statistics on state-sanctioned abortions, which the government, in its written report, suggested occurs,” said Donna Nicolls, civil society representative for the Bahamas, and presenter of the Bahamas Crisis Centre’s shadow report.
“The Cuban representative on the committee said she was not convinced by the government’s response. She said that normally statistics on illegal abortions are not shown; however, if the state says that abortion can be practised in a safe space, she questioned why the state doesn’t have statistics. If it is being done, certainly a register would be maintained,” said Ms Nicolls, who participated in the forum through the assistance of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch (IWRAW), Asian Pacific.
Former Minister of Health Dr Hubert Minnis said he had “no comment” on the abortion issue, because he was in “Abaco campaigning.” When asked if he was aware of any state-sanctioned abortions from his five years in government, he replied: “No comment.”
A respected medical doctor, who works in the public system, told The Tribune, there are no statistics on abortion because the market for abortions in the Bahamas is underground. The physician said the practice is governed by a “nod and a wink” culture, quietly supported by some licensed physicians.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” said the physician, but you can obtain an abortion in the Bahamas for around $750, although the price varies above and below depending on the physician or the location. Access to abortions, he said, is rife with class discrimination.”
“If you have the means to an abortion, it is not a big deal. You can travel, or you can have it done here safely, but if you are a poor woman, then dog eat your lunch. This becomes a massive issue, but how do you deal with this issue, when it is taboo. It is absolutely taboo,” said the physician.
“You have such a strong pseudo-Christian movement that is so hypocritical. Many people are just not prepared to deal with the backlash, despite the fact that quietly they will either perform abortions or see to it that they get done. Some of the most active abortionists who have moved away from it in the later years, you wouldn’t think they have ever performed an abortion,” the physician said.
“Ethical and less than ethical means of abortion exist in the Bahamas. The challenge is that it is not codified.”
Abortion is criminalised in the Bahamas through the Penal Code of 1924. In its “very limited” references to abortion, it allows “for abortions to be lawfully permitted under specific circumstances relating explicitly to the preservation of the mental and physical health of the woman and to save the life of the woman.”
However, the law also states that acts that lead to an abortion or are intended to cause an abortion that done “in good faith and without negligence for the purposes of medical or surgical treatment” are justifiable. According to the government report, the code does not define what constitutes medical or surgical treatment, and in practice, the law is interpreted very liberally.
The CEDAW committee reiterated its “concern” in its concluding observations, and called on the government to “broaden the conditions under which abortions can be legally available.”
Ms Nicolls said she concurred with the committee’s recommendations.
“Women should be able to access legal abortions without question in cases of rape and incest and in other circumstances where a woman’s health is at risk. The law should explicitly provide exceptions in those cases. It should not be ad hoc, or based on a ‘liberal interpretation’. Everyone should have equal access,” said Ms Nicolls.
Melanie Griffin, Minister of Social Services, could not be reached for comment and did not return calls. Barbara Burrows, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Social Services, who was a member of the Bahamas’ delegation, said she would seek answers to written questions provided by The Tribune.