Carolyn Cooper: Aborting women’s rights


A few days ago, Jamaican scholar Carolyn Cooper published an article on women’s reproductive right in Jamaica which has been the subject of heated debate island-wide. I had a chance to discuss it with her today, and am reproducing it below in its entirety since I could not decide—especially after our conversation—which excerpts could give readers the best idea of the contents of the piece. So here it is. A link to the article as it appeared in the Gleaner follows below.

“If men could get pregnant abortion would be a sacrament.” This famous feminist prick (as in sharp point) goes straight to the heart of the current debate about parliamentary reform of Jamaica’s backward laws on abortion. The reproductive health and rights of women are not taken seriously in much of the talk on this inflammatory subject.

Instead, male authority figures (and their female surrogates) pontificate on a pregnant matter about which they simply cannot speak authoritatively. Who feels it knows it, intimately. It is true that there are enlightened men who try to understand this contentious issue from the woman’s perspective. But they are relatively few.

Data from the Ministry of Health confirm that approximately 1,200 women are treated each year for complications arising from unsafe abortions. And those are just the official figures. In the 21st century, women in Jamaica are still risking their lives in order to claim reproductive rights that women in other countries simply take for granted.


The 1864 Offences Against the Person Act declares the following:

“72. Every woman, being with child, who with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent; and whosoever, with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall unlawfully administer to her, or cause to be taken by her, any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, shall be guilty of felony, and, being convicted thereof, shall be liable to be imprisoned for life, with or without hard labour.

“73. Whosoever shall unlawfully supply or procure any poison or other noxious thing, or any instrument or thing whatsoever, knowing that the same is intended to be unlawfully used or employed with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and, being convicted thereof, shall be liable to be imprisoned for a term not exceeding three years, with or without hard labour.”


In plain English: if a pregnant women tries to abort the foetus in her own body, she is guilty of a felony and, if convicted, is liable to be imprisoned for life. If anyone attempts to help her with the abortion, that person is also guilty of a felony and is liable to be similarly sentenced. The ‘druggist’ who supplies any ‘noxious thing’ or even the bearer of the thing to facilitate the process is liable to be imprisoned.

This piece of legislation is truly remarkable, especially bearing in mind the history of our country. The act was passed a mere 30 years after the abolition of slavery. All of a sudden, a foetus (not a ‘child’) was much more valuable than millions of enslaved Africans who were seen as beasts of burden and therefore entirely fit subjects for protracted abuse. Their lives needed no protection. An unborn ‘person’ now had more rights than actual persons, many of whom still had vivid memories of being brutalised by enslavement. Did this act have any moral authority? Or was it intended to ensure the availability of an unending supply of cheap labour?

These questions are not as far-fetched as they may seem. Historians confirm that enslaved African women aborted foetuses or even committed acts of infanticide in order to ensure that their children would not be enslaved. The most powerful literary treatment of this subject is Toni Morrison’s truly disturbing novel, Beloved, made into an eerie film. Ironically, enslaved women claimed reproductive freedoms that their supposedly emancipated descendants are still denied in Jamaica today.


It took more than a century for Jamaica’s outdated abortion laws to be modified. In 1975, the Ministry of Health in a Statement of Policy on Abortion made it “lawful for a registered medical practitioner acting in good faith to take steps to terminate the pregnancy of any woman if … he forms the opinion that the continuation of the pregnancy would be likely to constitute a threat to the life of the woman or inure [work] to the detriment of her mental and physical health”.

The Statement of Policy called for amendment of the Offences Against the Person Act (1864) in order to clarify the circumstances in which abortion could be deemed lawful in Jamaica – such as in cases of rape, carnal abuse and incest. Thirty-four years later the antiquated act has still not been amended.


The sexist language of the policy statement takes it for granted that the “registered medical practitioner” is male. Indeed, sexism is at the root of the conservative gender ideology that seeks to keep women in their place as hostages to their anatomy. It was Sigmund Freud who proclaimed that “anatomy is destiny”. Gender identity is supposedly fixed at birth – for life.

Karen Horney, one of Freud’s rogue disciples, challenged this declaration. She argued that culture, rather than biology, determined one’s fate. In a 1939 publication, she deflated Freud’s theory of “penis envy”. She argued that some men suffer from “womb envy”.

In any case, it wasn’t the penis itself women envied but the presumed power that the appendage bestowed on men: “[t]he wish to be a man … may be the expression of a wish for all those qualities or privileges which in our culture are regarded as masculine, such as strength, courage, independence, success, sexual freedom, right to choose a partner.” You can bet your last Super Lotto dollar that if men could get pregnant they would find a way to glamorise abortion as a heroic act of sexual freedom, requiring superhuman strength and courage.

Originally published at

Image by Dana Cameron from the booklet CEDAW for Jamaicans.

One thought on “Carolyn Cooper: Aborting women’s rights

  1. As many readers of this blog might already know, another really useful discussion of the relationship between colonization and the regulation of women’s bodies in the Caribbean is Jaqui Alexander’s “Not just (any0 body can be a citizen: the politics of law, sexuality and postcoloniality in Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas.”
    Thanks for this link. I can see teaching the Cooper essay along side the Alexander!

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