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An open letter on abortion
Posted: Friday, August 5, 2005

An open letter to Cherry Ann LeGendre, (Guardian Letter writer )on abortion.

My dear Ms. Le Gendre:

My writings to the newspapers of Trinidad and Tobago named in this headline, have so far been generally confined to public issues that even children can read and benefit from. They have all been designed to improve public discourse on issues of crime, self-actualization of the African people, and the issues of abuse against women and women's development.

Today, I depart from that to speak to you directly on the issue of abortion, on which you wrote to the Guardian Letters column on August 5th.

Let me state my bona fides; I am a sixty-four year old mother of two men, neither of whom have children. Neither is married. I have no daughters. Once, I thought that was a bad thing, leaving me deprived of nurturing hands in my old age, now, I have changed my position. I have also been an educator for nearly fifty years.

In my latter vocation, I have seen children who became pregnant as early as eleven years of age, and I have heard of children in Latin America who became pregnant at nine and ten. All of these were cases of rape.

A couple of weeks ago, an Asian friend came to see me unannounced; she had her family in tow. Since I practice what I preach when I say "drop in to see me" to my friends, I opened the door wide and put some extra dumplings in the split peas soup I was making for Saturday. (It's clean up and organize day, and split peas soup needs so little watching.) Cheryl chatted about this and that for a while, but I knew the main item was to come, and I waited.

Then she started talking in her simple way. My angelic little friend, her nine year old daughter, had become a "young lady". The age of menarche had arrived, and this new immigrant mother did not know what to do. Her daughter did not go to the same school in which she worked, and she was confused and upset because she knew this was a baby having a period. As Franchesca romped and played with her six year old brother, completely unselfconsciously, both father and mother looked at me as Cheryl said: "See, she is just a child!" The anguish in her voice was painful. How do you protect this innocent child from the consequences of her adult body forced upon her before she and her parents are ready for this?

While signs of developing womanhood in a daughter must be something mothers welcome, (I do not know, I have no daughters) there were no signs or sounds of welcome here. There was much of anguish, as in too soon; too soon, she is only a child!

My advice to her, the mother, was not to panic anymore but to treat it as a natural event, and talk to her baby about the implications. How does a mother do that, when a girl is more interested in watching cartoons with baby brother than in dressing up and playing grown up? I also suggested that she change the daughter's diet from chicken which retails for $0.49 a pound, to fish, the cheapest of which is $3.00 a pound, a big economic move for a family just beginning to make its way in the USA.

Early menarche has been reversed, according to one study done more than twenty years ago, by a change in diet from hormone enriched chicken, to natural ocean grown fish. It is also reversed on the African continent due to starvation, but the USA and TnT are not Niger. The bigger question was how to protect her daughter from sexual experimentation and or exploitation in the fast paced west where Asian values are thrown out the window, or ridiculed. The truth is, I do not know the answer. This nine year old is sailing uncharted waters. Most of her mother's friends are immigrants from the same culture. No help there. Should she put her on the pill to save her from danger, and pretend it's a vitamin?

Forty years ago, I was debating this issue with my friends at UWI. And this is what I said I would do if I had a daughter. I would put her on the pill at age ten, and let her think it was a vitamin supplement. I would have wanted to protect my daughter for the future her parents would have wanted for her. I stopped at two boys. My unborn Carla Dawn Gabrielle, remained a child of my imagination. Dawn and Gabrielle were born to others, a sister, and a neighbour.

The question of how to prepare and protect a nine year old girl- third standard, in Trinidad terms- from sexual predation, and unplanned unwanted pregnancy remains a deeply troubling question for all mothers and educators, as well as social workers, and health agencies. Sexual protection is also a troubling question for sexually active adult women. There are dangers in every form of protection and remediation, including the RU486 pill, the patch, the injection and combinations of spermicide and condoms, which are the most efficient; and all the others are a waste of time including checking mucus- (a method proposed and advocated by a group of clerics who never had to deal with the realities of marriage, and sleeping in the same bed nightly with a sexually desirable partner.)

Without seeming to titivate senses that should be left alone at this time, try to imagine a husband coming home at the end of a hard working week, and wanting to make love. The wife says wait a minute honey let me check the mucus. She goes to the bathroom and does what she needs to do, taking temperature and all that, then announces "Sorry, honey, not tonight. You have to wait a few days."

I want you to imagine the marital strife in thousands of homes where desire and the state of mucus collide.

It is at this point that all the teachings of various religious groups fall down. All things in moderation does not include waiting five days. Saying no to sex is good discipline for children to grow up with, but there comes a point when all of that fails.

It fails because humans are sexual beings. We express ourselves sexually in a number of ways, including the way we dress, even when we do not dress conspicuously. It is for these reasons that contraception was invented. Sex is pleasurable, not sinful, and pregnancy is fearful, even for married couples who do not desire any more children. The ancient Egyptians used contraception. I will not say what form, in case some child gets hold of the papers or reads this online. I do not want them experimenting with stuff like that.

Now, when contraception fails, what is a woman to do?
In the case of a cancer patient in Florida recently, the pregnancy proceeded even while she was brain dead, and her oxygen supply was turned off immediately the baby was delivered by Caesarian section last week. I wonder though, whether, if she had known she was pregnant, and terminated it early, if she would have lived. Teresa McClaren, our national netball player died in Canada as a result of a pregnancy while battling cancer. What should future cancer patients do, avoid sex altogether, thus also depriving their partner of the intimacies of a relationship that could bring them both some comfort? What if she uses a method, and it fails? There is a 3% failure rate for even the very best contraceptives. Should she, in the case of contraceptive failure, choose death instead of terminating the pregnancy by abortion while there is still time?

No one who is concerned about women's health would casually suggest terminating a viable pregnancy, that appears to be a healthy fetus, but what if the child has some incurable disease that can be detected intrauterine? What of those women at the far edges of the conception curve, the nine-year olds and the women of fifty-five or so who had thought they had put childbearing behind them? Should they be made to keep the children against all that good sense dictates, and name them Mistake, Error or Take-a-chance-and-lost? Would Opps! be a good name? Should they believe in divine providence, and if He sends it He will provide for it?

Well, the nation's jails and juvenile detention facilities in TnT are full of those for whom He did not provide responsible parents. The street children in downtown Port-of-Spain also testify to this. This is also true for England, the USA, and is true too, for those countries not so dedicated to jailing the poor, like Mexico, where child beggars as young as four roam the streets, and Brazil whose street children are legion. Canada too, has its problems with unplanned, unwanted pregnancies, and in South Africa, there is veritable epidemic. This is not a problem in Muslim countries, but stoning to death is, and so, in some cases, is forced clitoridectomy. (Now here is a word for your curious daughter to check on)

Abortion, a method of last resort, should be available to women for whom all else has failed. These are usually poor women, who have no choice but to go, cap and shame in hand before those in power, asking for a chance to turn their lives around. Wealthy women do not have the problem. They can go to other countries for "simple medical procedures" done as outpatients, that take care of Mistake, Error and Oops.

The debate on abortion should really be limited not to men, who never miss a period, not to clerics who never married, but to women who daily face the problem of unplanned, unwanted pregnancies. Men in the legislatures of all countries out number the women. It is these men who often wield tremendous power over the wombs of young women unknown to them, for whom they believe they should legislate morality. These women are not of their social class, and in looking down their noses from the supreme courts of justice and legislative hall, they have no idea of the terror of a fifteen year old, who has either been raped, or been playing around with her boyfriend, and is now pregnant.

Such young women have left their babies in dumpsters, dropped them off at hospitals and abandoned them, and buried them in forests to be eaten by ants. If they believed that help was available, without social stigma, they would have taken it, moved on with their lives, and at some more mature point in their development, planned to have a family.

When you demonize Family Planning Services, and portray them as abortion providers, you are committing a major sin of omission. You are dissembling; you are straying from the truth.

Family Planning Services are not procurers of abortion. They counsel people on the responsible management of their sexuality. If a person has an abortion, they may offer counselling services afterwards. They are in the business of having every child be a wanted child, and work to help develop legislation that would give a woman the choice of when and how many children should come.

The sexuality of the modern Trinbagonian woman should no longer be a thing managed for her by the grocery store owner whose goods she cannot pay for, it should no longer be the perk of her lecherous boss, father, teacher, uncle or pastor. It should be her own. Family Planning Services, and abortion as a method of last resort, empower women to manage their own lives.

Freedom for women, must include, in a developing country, the freedom to manage their bodies and sexuality as adults. For children? The parent's say so will still hold, so you may see or hear of more ten year olds becoming pregnant as we struggle to deal with this modern phenomenon. Every victim of rape, regardless of age, should have, by law, the right to scrape from her womb the offending seed that clings there to remind her for a lifetime, of brutality, rage and shame.

Trinidad and Tobago may need additional population, but those unwanted children, whose mothers were denied an abortion, may be raised in such neglect and hate that they become a scourge on the face of the nation.

That cannot be the kind of population increase we want.

There are many aspects of social legislation that I can be reasonable about. A woman's right to terminate an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy is not one of them. It must be left to her, her conscience and whatever belief system sustains her in the darkest hours of the soul. Legislatures, representing the people, should not legislate only for those who oppose women's right to choose.

(This writer once worked for a Family Planning Agency, and was also a board member of the Caribbean Conference of Churches, concurrently. She does not speak for either, but for her own conscience)

Linda Edwards

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