Not a ‘Cayliss Gyal’: Telling the Stories of Jamaicans Who’ve Had Abortions

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Culture & Conversation Abortion

Not a ‘Cayliss Gyal’: Telling the Stories of Jamaicans Who’ve Had Abortions

Sharine Taylor

Jherane Patmore founded an online site that shares stories of people who've had abortions in the Caribbean nation, where there's an ongoing debate about its abortion ban.

At a recent Parliamentary hearing about Jamaica’s abortion law, a nun testified and a retired public health professor pushed false claims that women suffer emotionally after abortions and that Jamaican music promotes unprotected sex.

Notably absent from the discussion: the voices of those who have actually ended their pregnancies.

That’s not a surprise, given that Jamaica bans abortion. Sections 72 and 73 of the country’s Offences Against the Persons Act (OAPA) only allow abortions to save the life of the pregnant person, and individuals who perform abortions can be imprisoned for life. Women who have abortions can serve prison time. And though there’s been an ongoing effort to repeal the law, largely spearheaded by Member of Parliament Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn and advocates through organizations such as WE-Change, even talking about abortion is met with much resistance.

If the act is repealed, changing public attitudes will be another major feat. At the recent meeting in Parliament, it was clear that many abortion opponents’ lack of medical knowledge about abortion and what motivates people to have them. And though the hearing included claims about Jamaican music somehow contributing to women’s seeking abortions, anti-abortion songs are common; in 2017, Mavado released “Careless Gal,” which shames women for being “irresponsible.” Go back even further and you’ll find songs such as I Wayne’s 2005 “Don’t Worry,” Macka Diamond’s 2006 “Nuh Dash Weh Belly,” and Vybz Kartel’s 2009 “Nuh Dash It Weh”—with the last two using the popular term in Jamaica for someone who’s had an abortion: “dash weh belly.”

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Jherane Patmore is trying to counter all the anti-abortion noise by centering people who’ve chosen to have abortions. Patmore, an advocate for Caribbean literature and leader of the Rebel Women Lit book club, also runs Abortion Monologues, an anonymous blog chronicling Jamaicans’ abortion experiences. In July 2018, Patmore created this digital safe space for individuals who would otherwise be labeled as a cayliss gyal (“careless girl”).

Rewire.News spoke with Patmore about running the blog, the political and social climate regarding abortion in Jamaica, and how each story she publishes is unique.

Rewire.News: What prompted you to start the blog?

Jherane Patmore: The idea came from Mother’s Day when The Gleaner newspaper did a front-cover story talking about abortion. I just thought it was the most tasteless thing ever. Big Sunday, Mother’s Day, everyone’s happy about their mom and then you’re talking about abortion. [Though most women who have abortions also already have or will have children], it was obviously to provoke.

What bothered me was that the discussion, especially in the media, never had personal accounts. It was always a very ideological-based, moral-based discussion. It was never talking about the lived experiences of persons who wanted abortions or persons who’ve had one and what that’s been like.

As you can probably see from the blog, [for] some persons, it’s the best decision they’ve ever made. Some persons regret it. Some persons still think about it every day. Some people don’t think about it at all. It’s just all these varied experiences that I just felt weren’t documented and no one knows.

Rewire.News: What are the general attitudes toward abortions in Jamaica?

JP: Generally, people are against it. I think people in their personal spaces might be a bit more flexible, but publicly there is a negative association with it.

I’ve hardly gotten any negative feedback from in the blog. Since the last couple of months I’ve been doing it, I’ve only received three negative comments, ever. And I thought that was very interesting because I’ve promoted stuff on Instagram before, so it’s reaching a wider audience.

Even if persons don’t agree with—I don’t even know what “agreeing” with abortions means [as people have autonomy over their own bodies]—once they hear individual stories and understand circumstances, they tend to be more supportive of that person. I like that humanizing aspect of it. And I think once people realize that literally thousands of women have had abortions, then it kinda seems a bit ridiculous.

There’s one particular story on the blog about a woman who’s had multiple abortions. Even people who are generally in support of abortion, they’re like, “Oh, but you can only do it one time.” There has to be that one extreme case that you need to have an abortion. You shouldn’t have to do it three times or two times. That, in itself, is another dimension of the conversation that I don’t think we’ve had yet.

Rewire.News: What do you think is stifling change to shift the conversation to where it needs to as a society, in Parliament, and in legislation?

JP: As a society, I think the lack of humanizing these stories or humanizing abortion is definitely holding back the societal discussions. There is this idea of who has an abortion: It’s a cayliss gyal, dash weh belly, all these things. That’s one version. Then there’s another version of the career-driven women who does not want any children and she’s cold and heartless.

There’s also that religious element, of course. There’s a lot of anti-abortion in religion publicly. However with persons I know who are religious, when abortion comes up,  it’s like a hushed-tone, “Are you going to get an abortion?” No one talks about it, the church won’t accept it, but that church sister has a doctor. Religion is really what holds back the legislative side of it.

Rewire.News: What do you think Parliament should do?

JP: For me personally, when it comes to abortion, I don’t think you need Parliament to legislate.

I’m disinterested in the Jamaican government creating new legislation around abortion because whenever there is a discussion from the Government of Jamaica (GOJ), there are many unhelpful boundaries being placed on who can get an abortion. For example: only women who have been raped or only when a woman’s life is in danger or based on her economic standing, etc. Until the GOJ is willing to discuss abortion on demand, I don’t think we should ask them to create new legislation.

Rather, I’m more interested in them removing the criminal offenses for having an abortion since an attempt to procure an abortion can have you jailed for life. The law criminalizing abortion (and assisting with an abortion) need to be removed from the books in totality. Abortion needs to be legal but not be criminal. … It shouldn’t be something that the legal system needs to get involved in beyond misconduct with medical practices, which we already have regulations for.

There is currently an Abortion Policy Review Advisory Group comprised of mostly persons from the medical community, a rep from the church (unusual, but I suppose because of the “sensitive nature of the topic,” they’re included), and members of Parliament. The policy recommendations are grounded in medical facts, and these types of committees are meant to guide the practices of doctors and inform their ethics and governance. Their suggestions have been mostly positive, which is usually what happens when we have a scientific guide in practicing medicine. I think the medical associations need to come up with their own guidelines.

I’ve heard, “How many abortions can you have?” There’s so many stories [where women were misinformed] that if you had multiple abortions, you can’t have children again. Doctors will tell you that as long as your abortion isn’t botched, getting pregnant again shouldn’t be an issue. There’s a lot of misconceptions around that, that need to change. And it’s not going to happen unless you’re talking about it and talking about it beyond, “I think women should have abortions” or “I don’t think women should have abortions.” The conversations needs to be “Women are having abortions.”

Rewire.News: When people visit the blog, what do you want them to take from the narratives the most?

JP: I’m hoping people just understand that people who have abortions are people. They have lives. They have loved ones. They have dreams. They have aspirations. They’re not just cold, wicked, careless, and all those awful stereotypes that we have about persons. They’re people that you would know. They’re people you’d talk to. They’re people. And it’s time that we actually start seeing them as full human beings, and this is just a part of their stories. [We] just get a glimpse into that event and how it could have impacted the rest of their lives. That to me is very important. I want people to see that abortions are a very normal part of life. And normal people get them.