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Government proposals violate Jamaican women’s rights to privacy and personal autonomy » Family Planning

Government proposals violate Jamaican women’s rights to privacy and personal autonomy

October 17th, 2008 by jliebner@stanford.edu Leave a reply »

Do mandated medical examination of girls’ virginity and mandated female sterilization violate a women’s right to privacy and personal autonomy? How do governments deal with population pressure? Should women be solely accountable for high fertility rates and have to shoulder the complete responsibility of family planning?

In a parliamentary session in 2003, two parliamentary members proposed these drastic measures to reduce the number of teenage and unwanted pregnancies in Jamaica. Citing a breakdown in family values as the cause for the increase in the number of teenage pregnancies and the subsequent burden on the welfare system, parliamentary member Sharon Hay-Web of the People’s National Party proposed compulsory sterilization of young women with more than three children. She advocated that “the state cannot cope with the responsibility of so many unwanted childbirths – we are taking care of people…from the womb to the tomb.” Ernie Smith, a member of parliament from the opposition Jamaica Labour Party recommended mandatory medical examinations of schoolgirls under the age of 16, the age of consent in Jamaica. He believed that such a procedure would serve “to determine if their virginity is still intact.”

Fortunately, these measures are not under serious consideration. Tubal ligation can only be performed if women are told about other forms of contraception, receive counseling, and have a signed form to do the procedure. While voluntary sterilization is the most common form of family planning in the United States and in developing countries, mandating the sterilization of women is a violation of privacy and human rights. Women ought to be able to choose how many children they want to have and preserve their abilities to have children in the future. Tubal ligation is a permanent form of sterilization and to force this measure on an unwilling woman is a form of injustice and a violation of her body.

A 31 year old Jamaica mother of six shared her views about family planning and the role of the government with Trudy Simpson, a journalist from the Jamaican daily newspaper, the Gleaner. As a mother who has a difficult time providing for her children and wished she knew about contraception as a teenager, she reflected that she “would have stopped at three children” and would have had her “first at 20” instead of 17. She admitted that she would have preferred to have had the procedure, but that “the government don’t have a right to say women can’t have any [more] children.”

In a similar vein, to require by law for teenage girls to submit to medical examinations or share information regarding their sexual behavior is a violation of their privacy. Firstly, such medical procedures would be ineffective – the hymen is not a reliable indicator of sexual activity. Tampon use and sports activity can break the hymen. Also, if a girl under the age of 16 were found to be involved in sexual activity, what would come of this information? Would she be punished? Granted, attempting to track and stop incidences of rape or incest is critical, particularly among girls below the age of consent. However, these issues ought to be addressed without requiring all girls to be submitted to required examinations. Emphasis on safety and the persecution of individuals who take advantage of young girls ought to be emphasized without requiring girls to submit to such an examination.

Even though such measures are unlikely to be passed, the implications of such proposals are significant. Teenage pregnancy is still a problem in Jamaica – teenage pregnancy account for 20% of pregnancies in Jamaica, and teenagers are becoming sexually active as young as 14. Jamaica’s National Family Planning Board reports that 66% of all births are not planned, and for women under 20, 40% have been pregnant at least once and 85% of these pregnancies are unplanned.

But the proposed ideas to limit pregnancy – to test for “virginity” and to surgically prevent a woman from ever becoming pregnant again – are not viable solutions. Rather, from a young age, both girls and boys should be exposed to education programs about sexual decision making and be both made aware of methods of contraception and have methods made available. However, Jamaica is predominantly a Christian country. While contraception distribution campaigns do exist in Jamaica, young people are finding it difficult to obtain, given the associated embarrassment and judgmental opinions of pharmacy and clinic workers.

The extreme measures proposed by the parliamentary members represent an often overlooked aspect of family planning and contraception – that it is often made a woman’s responsibility. As Professor Barbara Bailey, the regional coordinator for the Centre for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, puts it, “It takes two to tango. Why put the onus on the female?” Tubal ligation may be the most prevalent form of contraception around the world given that it is completely in the woman’s power and that other forms of contraception are more likely to fail if left to the decision of others.

I hope to delve into the issues presented here in more depth in future blogs, particularly the following: the factors contributing to the prevalence of pregnancy among teenagers in Jamaica, the forms of contraception available, proposed solutions to teenage pregnancy, the responses to such solutions, and the burden placed on women, the role of men, and potential ways to address this issue that respect the reproductive rights of women and place equal responsibility on both men and women.

Angela, forty year old Jamaican mother of two who became pregnant at 17, speaks from experience. “My mom said I must be careful not to get pregnant, but I didn’t understand what was happening. Society needs to educate people. We have to begin in schools with adolescents, especially in the inner city, so the cycle can be broken.”

Thanks to Trudy Simpson for the accounts from the women of Jamaica.



  1. lizzyg@stanford.edu says:

    This was an eye opening entry. I have heard of China’s “One child per family” policy, but I have never heard of anything so extreme as testing for “virginity” and to surgically preventing a woman from ever becoming pregnant again. Those are unbelievably flagrant infringements of the rights of women in Jamaica and I can’t believe they were even mentioned as options in that country. This is the 21st century after all and we should be much more active to educate the people of Jamaica on the problem their increased fertility is creating rather than resort to something as base as medical intervention. Once again, education seems to be the answer to solving the problems of the world, but since Jamaica is predominantly a Christian country, education about reproductive rights rather than contraception might be a more viable option. I am interested to see in future entries how Jamaica plans to tackle this problem.

  2. Another measure, which mirrors eugenics efforts, under consideration by a politician in Louisiana – http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2008/09/labruzzo_sterilization_plan_fi.html

    From the article: Worried that welfare costs are rising as the number of taxpayers declines, state Rep. John LaBruzzo, R-Metairie, said Tuesday he is studying a plan to pay poor women $1,000 to have their Fallopian tubes tied.

    “We’re on a train headed to the future and there’s a bridge out, ” LaBruzzo said of what he suspects are dangerous demographic trends. “And nobody wants to talk about it.”

  3. Maggie Chen says:

    I had a strong reaction to the suggestion of virginity testing. It comes off to me as downright creepy and an inappropriate way to reduce teen births, and you’re right on to question what would come of that information. My guess is that the testing would create a split between girls who are found to be virgins and girls who are not (and you note that basing the test on the hymen is not an accurate way to determine virginity)…and perhaps the societal impact or shame of being called a non-virgin would lead girls to essentially ‘give up’ and start childbearing at an earlier age. Just a thought.

    I agree with you that mandated sterilization is a violation of privacy and human rights. While reading what the parliamentary member said about the state not being able to handle all the births, I had an idea that would be more human rights-friendly. Maybe at the birth of a woman’s third child, she should be required to have a health education session to make sure that she is familiar with the modern methods of contraception that are available. Since the experiences of teen mothers in your entry seem to emphasize the need for information, this idea might improve women’s knowledge of contraception while still emphasizing the importance of their choice. But I realize that this would not deal with the bigger issue of women having their first birth at an early age…

  4. mjromano says:

    Well, I’m constantly amazed at how policies can try to address problems at the latest possible moment, and forced sterilization or virginity testing seems like a rather late response to decreasing quality of life and overpopulation. If one wanted to lower the number of unwanted pregnancies, you would think the most effective policy would be one empowering women to make their own reproductive plans. “Empower” may mean educate where knowledge is lacking, or “empower” could mean “to give power” in relationships where women do not feel in control of their reproduction. Really empowering women requires asking the big questions like “is poverty just?” and “how much do we actually care about other people?” I know that these are uncomfortable questions, but without an authentic analysis of the causes of social phenomena, we will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over ad infinitum.

    At the risk of seeming off-topic: it’s like the US Government declaring polar bears endangered but refusing to admit that global warming is the actual cause of their endangerment because its just too big of a responsibility to consider. Instead of considering what it would take to give these women other options besides having multiple children as teenagers, maybe we can just punish women that have had young sex because retributive justice is a infallible social tool (not).

    Anyway, it’s way too late on a Saturday night for me to be very coherent, but I appreciated learning about some of these issues and they raise a lot of good questions.

    I would specifically like to hear more about “ways to address this issue [of unwanted pregnancies] that respect the reproductive rights of women and place equal responsibility on both men and women.” It’s something that I’ve been thinking about in my personal life, and I haven’t come across any easy answers. Thanks for the posting and I look forward to reading more.

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