The Right To Choose: A Historical Lens

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Pro-choice activists during a pro-abortion demonstration in front of the National Congress on February 19, 2019 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Gabriel Sotelo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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By Professor Opal Palmer Adisa

News Americas, KINGSTON, Jamaica, Feb. 19, 2019: The debate about abortion is reminiscent of the debate about slavery. In both instances, those against abolition, quoted the Bible and God in their defense of their right to protect their property, and those for emancipation quoted the Bible and God as evidence of why they should fight for and were entitled to be free.

There were also those in the middle, some slaves who sided with their enslavers, and some former enslavers who sided with their enslaved. I cite this historical evidence to indicate that often those for or against an argument often use the same evidence in their defense.

However, in retrospect, I think the majority will agree that emancipation was the morally correct stance.  Nonetheless, there are many in the shadows as well as in the open who still feel African-Black people should have remained slaves, and in fact, the institutional structure of slavery still exists, which is why the majority of poor people in the new world, and the people who are least respected are people of African descent.

While some might say this is an unfair parallel, I want to offer another key factor of slavery to illustrate why an acknowledgement and understanding of the strictures of slavery are applicable here.  Enslaved African people, both women and men, never owned or had the right to their bodies, not their reproductive rights nor the right to choose their off-springs.

This is a fact. Black men, especially throughout the Caribbean, were forced to breed with women, and Black women from the very beginning of their time in the Caribbean, have never had any say in who raped or impregnated them, or what happened to the children they bore, many of whom were sold from them. Black women did not own themselves or their bodies or their children.  A racist, patriarchal ideology dictated something as personal and private as their womb and sexuality.

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I do not think Caribbean people have healed from that scar and trauma, and unfortunately the anti-abortion debate is succumbing to this ideology. In a just society, where men and women are treated equally, both have the right to own and determine what happens to their bodies, which includes impregnating, pregnancies, types of health care and surgery they elect for curable or other diseases that one might contract.

But historical evidence also indicates that many enslaved women practiced abortion, and many refused to have children whose futures were blighted and who were destined to be enslaved like they were.

We have evidence that some enslaved people, when they got the opportunity, men as well as women, jumped into the ocean and were swallowed by the waves, rather than travel the journey of enslavement.

We have evidence that some women used various herbs and other means to abort the life they were carrying. So even when people were told they had no right to their bodies and no reproductive rights they did not relinquish their inalienable agency and took a stand for themselves, facing the perils rather than accepting what the enslaver had determined. Women continue to do so today, still at great risk, sometimes losing their lives. Slavery is officially abolished, but women are still fighting for their freedom, for their full emancipation from the enslaver’s rule.

The truth is abortion would be a moot point if the emphasis was shifted and men’s bodies and sexual rights were being policed. What if the law said all men had to refrain from unprotected sexual intercourse and had to ask every woman they planned to sleep with if she wants to have his child, and had to simultaneously pledge in writing to support that child financially and emotionally (including care for the child every other weekend so the mother can get a break), regardless of what happens to the relationship in the future?

Why can’t we legislate that all men wear condoms, which would not only eliminate unwanted pregnancies, but also the transmitting of diseases such as aids and STDs? Those men who insist on policing women’s bodies, need to understand they are encouraging flagrant disrespect for women’s autonomy, which is tied to an outdated racist, patriarchal ideology.

I think more constructive time should be spent examining and looking to see how we can improve the many lives that are already in existence that need all our support. Perhaps all the anti-abortionists should be ordered to adopt or provide for the welfare of the many homeless children living throughout Jamaica, or for the other children that are in government run homes and foster care, as well as the scores of other children who are dying from poverty and abuse, who have no means to go to school or who daily go hungry, and who have no chance of rising above the poverty, violence and squalor in which they live.

There are far too many people currently living in Jamaica who are hungry, anguished and are daily being killed by an unjust economic and religious system. There are far too many people barely eking out a living without support from government or those life zealots.  There is an abundance of present life that needs the anti-abortionists’ voice and support.

Stay out of women’s wombs.  Defend the lives that are already present.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Professor Opal Palmer Adisa is director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies Regional Headquarters, The University of the West Indies.