Pro-Legalization of Abortion is Not the Same as Pro-Abortion

Diana Thorburn

“I am Catholic but I have to legislate for everyone,” proclaimed then-candidate Alberto Fernandez, in his campaign promise to reintroduce a bill to legalize abortion in Argentina. After winning the presidency, he fulfilled his commitment, and Argentina legalized abortion up to 14 weeks gestation in 2020. President Fernandez’s distinguishing between his personal beliefs and what he recognized as the human costs associated with the abortion ban, highlights that supporting the legalization of abortion does not equate to being pro-abortion.

Banning abortion does not stop women from getting them. In Jamaica, abortion is currently illegal except when the life of the pregnant woman is at risk. Yet up to 22,000 abortions are performed in Jamaica each year, and up to half of early pregnancy complications in hospitals likely result from attempted terminations. More than one in five pregnant teenagers report having undergone a previous abortion.

A pro-legalization position stands apart from questions of reproductive rights, moral beliefs, bodily autonomy, and the sanctity of life. It need not even incorporate arguments related to the several adverse economic and societal outcomes, at the individual and national levels, directly and indirectly related to abortion being illegal.  It merely acknowledges the reality that women are going to get abortions, regardless of their legality.

What the ban restricts is access to safe abortions.  Unsafe abortions pose dire health risks to the women undergoing them—possibly carrying permanent or fatal consequences—and to unborn children should they survive the attempt. In Jamaica, complications from unsafe abortions constitute the second leading cause of maternal deaths among adolescents and the third leading cause among adult women. Some 50 percent of abortions are carried out without supervision by a medical professional.  Four to 8 percent of women treated at Victoria Jubilee Hospital for conditions threatening the pregnancy admitted to having attempted to carry out an abortion themselves. As there is no requirement or obligation for women to admit to this unlawful act, the actual percentage is likely higher. In contrast, abortion provided by a trained medical professional using approved techniques, instruments, and drugs, under hygienic conditions, is a relatively safe procedure. Legalization allows for regulation, ensuring that the risks associated with unsafe procedures are reduced, as women can access proper reproductive healthcare services.

The real impact of the abortion ban is inequitable, in that it mainly affects poor women’s access to safe termination of pregnancy services. It is well known that women in Jamaica with means can readily access safe abortions effected by oral and vaginal medications for J$10,000 to $60,000, or surgical terminations by a medical professional for $40,000 to $150,000. Poor women and girls are also more likely to have unintended pregnancies than their better off counterparts.

Those who aim to reduce or prevent abortions should consider the global evidence that legalizing abortion leads to a decrease in abortions. This seemingly counterintuitive outcome is because legal abortion is often accompanied by comprehensive reproductive healthcare, which includes access to contraception. When contraception is readily accessible and affordable, unintended pregnancies decline, subsequently decreasing the demand for abortions. Additionally, countries that legalize abortion tend to prioritize comprehensive sex education in schools, equipping individuals with knowledge about contraception, sexual health, and responsible decision-making, leading to better choices regarding pregnancy prevention.

Pro-life, anti-abortion activists would do well to consider approaches to reducing abortions other than lobbying against its legalization. Working towards reducing unwanted pregnancies by advocating for comprehensive sex education and access to contraception, including and especially for teenagers, would be far more effective. Providing material support—housing, utilities, food, clothing, assistance with school fees, etc.—to poor women faced with unintended pregnancies, to help her raise the unintended child and her other children, would also go much further to prevent abortions and improve women’s and children’s lives than working to deny those women access to legal, safe termination services.

Framing the legalization of abortion in Jamaica as pro-life versus pro-abortion is misleading and unhelpful. Opponents of legalizing abortion often mischaracterize those who support it as lacking respect for life. This oversimplification fails to recognize that those who advocate for legalization often do so with a deep concern for the well-being of the poor women who do not have access to safe abortion, and their children. A pro-legalization stance acknowledges that decriminalization reduces the risks associated with unsafe procedures. It does not mean promoting or endorsing abortion.

Policy makers and legislators are duty bound to consider that the ban does not stop abortion, and that the ban on abortion as it currently stands in Jamaica only serves to restrict poor women’s access, with detrimental consequences for them and their families.

The data in this article is contained in CAPRI’s report: Coming to Terms: The Social Costs of Unequal Access to Safe Abortions