By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Staff Reporter
WOMEN should not be forced to break the law in order to exercise rights over their own body, according to Dr Duane Sands, who yesterday joined activists in their call for national dialogue on the abortion issue.
Dr Sands spoke to the need for modernized views on abortion after South Beach MP Cleola Hamilton accused physicians of profiting from conducting illegal abortions in the country.
During her contribution to the stem cell debate on Wednesday, Ms Hamilton told parliamentarians that the practice was rampant, unchecked, and lucrative.
Dr Sands said he felt that Ms Hamilton “sucker punched” the medical community, instead of taking a “responsible” approach and initiating national consultation on the issue.
He charged that the current legislative environment created an economic disparity between those who can access legal services in other jurisdictions, and those relegated to “community abortions”.
“This is a conversation that as a people we simply have not had in terms of a woman’s right to choose, and so we pretend that Bahamians don’t have sex, we pretend that they don’t have unprotected sex, we pretend that they don’t get pregnant, and we certainly pretend that they don’t have abortions,” said Dr Sands, admitting that his strong stance on the issue could harm his political future.
He said: “(Hamilton) raised a very important issue in the Bahamas and it is one of the serious issues that we need to contend with at the age of 40. In the Bahamas it is said that numbers is illegal and yet you have web shops on virtually every street corner in the inner city.”
The decision of whether or not a woman has the right to decide to bring a pregnancy to term is an intensely controversial, moral and legal issue in many parts of the world. While abortions are legal in the United States, some states have varying regulations.
A major argument against outlawing the practice is that it increases the rate of unsafe abortions, and ultimately maternal deaths.
In an interview with The Tribune, Bahamas Crisis Centre director Dr Sandra Patterson explained that victims of rape and incest should not have to depend on a physician’s “goodwill” or legal interpretation to terminate a resulting pregnancy.
Dr Patterson said: “Women should have the choice, when they don’t have the choice awful things happen like abandonment of children, and unsafe abortions. It’s time for us to be talking about that and looking into legal provisions that could provide conditions under which it would be available instead of leaving it up to a doctor’s goodwill.
“If you’re an incest victim,” she said, “you miss your period and you tell someone about it, if you don’t want to have that baby you shouldn’t have to do it, and you shouldn’t only be able to have it because you have money and can pay a private physician to do it.”
In a report submitted by the government last year to the international committee of the United Nations governing discrimination against women, it was revealed that officials are aware of cases where licensed physicians perform abortions in private and public hospitals for justifiable reasons.
The report stated that the code does not define what constitutes medical or surgical treatment, and in practice, the law is interpreted very liberally.
The report was presented in compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), an international human rights treaty that focuses on women’s rights and women’s issues worldwide, ratified by the Bahamas in 1993.
According to a Tribune feature article on the report, the CEDAW committee expressed concerns over the government’s failure to provide statistics on state-sanctioned abortions, and called on the government to “broaden the conditions under which abortions can be legally available.”
Abortion is criminalised in the Bahamas through the Penal Code of 1924; however 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.”
The law also states that acts that lead to an abortion or are intended to cause an abortion that are done “in good faith and without negligence for the purposes of medical or surgical treatment” are justifiable.
Dr Sands said: “I’m calling for a mature national conversation on a very challenging issue that has moral and religious implications, so that we can bring our current view into the 21st century.
“I am not suggesting that we are going to change our approach but I think that because this is such a political hot potato that nobody wants to touch it.”
He added: “We as a country have been prepared to sacrifice one or more
young women every year on the altar of ‘I’m not touching that’.”
Melanie Griffin, Minister of Social Services, could not be reached for comment as she was out of the country.
Requests for comment from the Bahamas Medical Council were also not returned up to press time.