Taking campaigning to an old low

fullfront157frontLow-income women pay VAT like everyone. So they’ve helped fix PNM Lady-Vice-Chairman Camille Robinson-Regis’s womb.

But coming out the blocks as a candidate in July, Lady-Vice Chairman thought nothing of making access to reproductive health titivating political bacchanal, throwing words for the Opposition Leader about her medical relative.

PNM’s Women’s League had swiftly registered abhorrence of the “new low” UNC’s No Rowley campaign set. But Lady-Vice Chairman brought the recent campaign back to an old low with: “Kamla, if you love children so much, tell us what you think about abortion?” What distinguishes Credit-Card Camille now from Shoppin Toppin?

Lady-Vice Chairman’s comment certainly sickened me. A female friend Facebooked: “This is why I won’t vote.

Neither Patrick Manning’s last-ditch anti-abortion and anti-gay appeals in 2010, nor the Partnership’s desperation dragging Keith Rowley’s and his parents’ reproductive lives through Parliament in March, rendered any electoral dividend. These failures should chasten all politicians about such politics. Or at least reveal their cost.

But punishing girls and poor women for our nation’s spectacular policy failures at both sex education and addressing gender-based violence seems to still make political sense.

Abortion is a medical procedure legally available locally to women who wish to terminate a pregnancy for personal health reasons.

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 23.05However, successive governments’ failure to establish clear ethical protocols and legal protections for healthcare workers’ related decisions has curtailed access to the procedure in free public health facilities.

Women with means to terminate pregnancies abroad, or in safety and privacy of offices of physicians willing to apply the law flexibly, do so. Poor women, who can least afford their children, keep them, complete risky pregnancies, or seek abortion using the unsafe, life-threatening settings and means they can afford. Many still end up in public hospitals with complications. It’s a leading cause of maternal mortality.

Similar double standards abound—taxpayers finance Cabinet-members like Lady-Vice Chairman accessing health services abroad that we are denied.

Neither major party, whose leaders both lost control of their sex lives during the campaign, shows any appetite for allowing pregnant women greater control over theirs. Camille, Kamla and Keith’s personal vulnerabilities make them precisely leaders smart enough to stop kicking poor women in the stomach with a political football, and let reproductive decision-making remain private.

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 23.09Our closest Caribbean neighbours modernised abortion law decades ago. Barbados led the region in 1983, making abortion available for broad health reasons, rape, incest and socioeconomic harm; beyond 12 weeks, terminations are limited to government facilities. Guyana in 1995 made it legal for the first eight weeks, another four when pregnancy results from failed contraception. Public facilities began performing procedures in 2008. The 1861 prohibition against “unlawful” abortion and its six-year jail sentence (four for the woman, two the abortionist) remain on T&T’s lawbooks—though UK and Irish court decisions (dating to 1938) deeming health reasons lawful are interpreted to have force as case law here.

An old adage goes: If men got pregnant, abortion would be legal. And half the nation believes terminating pregnancy should be either a woman’s or doctors’ decision; though those who’d keep abortion illegal is only slightly smaller. But Trinb women’s positions on abortion baffle me. My own experience is families where women in every generation have had one, yet mothers, secreting theirs, shame and block daughters and granddaughters exercising similar choice. I expected boundary-breaking candidate Jowelle DeSouza to be passionately committed to women’s right to make decisions about their own bodies. She opposes abortion. I guess she’ll never need one.

Performance of public piety and shaming while skeletons rattle in our closets is our sad colonial legacy. Investigative reporters could find a few parliamentary abortions with little effort. Reproductive rights remain a justice issue political cowardice leaves without champions. In a country with a history of slavery and indentureship, politicians remain averse to championing the freedom of people’s bodies.

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 23.15Had Lady-Vice Chairman decried hypocrisy in the other political camp, and called for reasoned national debate about abortion, I’d have cheered loudly. Instead, she elected to score cheap points, although—one blogger reveals—a decade ago she “expressed her personal desire to modernize the laws regarding abortion in the country and to date has done very little to do anything about it.” I’m glad, however, Lady-Vice Chairman highlighted that physicians with political pedigree perform abortions. That helps destigmatise them—which is what women who need them need.

I wish it were as safe for women to say they’ve had an abortion as me saying I’m gay. We could take abortion off the hustings, return it to public health and privacy. I was hopeful we might once the campaign was over. But sex education swearing-in remarks by the Education Minister, and Kamla’s signature gender ministry shoe-horned into “Family Services,” suggest the PNM hasn’t hesitated back down the road to sexual denial.

“Boy, I know in my heart I was right not to vote,” my friend messaged the night Cabinet was sworn in. I don’t know how many women’s votes besides hers Lady-Vice Chairman lost the party. Perhaps most women vote against their self-interest in the name of morality. Closeted gay and bisexual people, after all, have for centuries.

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