Abortion victory is won in Mauritius

From the September-October 2012 issue of News & Letters:

Abortion victory is won in Mauritius

LALIT supporters at a March 6 ceremony for Sharonne and photographic
journalist Marie-Noelle, two mothers who died from illegal abortions. Photo: LALIT, Sealia Thevenaud.

Port Louis, Mauritius—LALIT is the only political party that has, over the decades, campaigned for abortion decriminalization, and finally, in June, Parliament passed a new Abortion Law to replace the 1838 total ban. Everyone in Mauritius knows that this is a LALIT struggle, as our stand on abortion decriminalization had often been used “against” us. So, it is like getting accumulated “support.”

The new abortion law decriminalizes abortion in the circumstances of serious ill-health of the woman or malformation of the fetus, rape, incest or statutory rape. It also means that women can speak openly about abortion, and can, when ill after a complication resulting from an illegal abortion, go to a hospital for treatment with more freedom. And the struggle continues.

The law came into the National Assembly two months after the women’s organization, the Muvman Liberasyon Fam (MLF) whose leadership is mostly women in LALIT, held ceremonies in two cemeteries with the families of women who had died as a direct result of abortion being illegal. The MLF had accentuated its campaign for abortion decriminalization, and put into question the wording of the archaic law, which referred to the woman being “quick with child.”

A woman had been charged in 2009 with illegal abortion, and the Director of Public Prosecutions had finally, after women’s mobilization against the law as “not clear,” dropped charges.

MLF called a Common Front on Abortion which became very strong. The death of a woman photographic journalist following an illegal abortion changed the balance of forces enormously, as all the reporters and other employees of the Press groups could no longer toe the line of the main companies that run the Press, which are historically close to the Catholic Church.

The law was finally passed with only 20% of MPs voting against. This massive support in Parliament was despite a campaign that would make you think “everyone” is against it, or, if not, then too weak to stand up to the religious lobbies opposing abortion.

Every time Parliament met, there were dozens of women in the galleries, holding press conferences, and even staying until after midnight. There was a candlelight ceremony in memory of women who had died from illegal abortions.

The mobilization was given strong vocal support by the Nursing Association, the biggest union in the health sector. The Union called for complete decriminalization, and for women to feel free to come to hospital. “We are here to look after the sick, not to judge you,” union leader Ashok Callooa announced. He said nurses are the ones who see the suffering that results from back-street abortions, and he, like almost everyone else in the debate, put emphasis on the class issue. Poor women suffer disproportionately from the law.

Other unions also came out in support, adding to the growing support from human rights groups, family planning organizations and the women’s movement.

A surprisingly large number of MPs spoke in favor of well-nigh total decriminalization, showing their reliance on the argumentation developed over decades of struggle, specially by LALIT and the MLF. Another surprise was the strong pro-secular approach amongst MPs of almost all parties. They put emphasis on the health and human rights issues, and the need for a secular state. The once opposition Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM) came out worst, with its anti-abortion MPs making fools of themselves in speeches so outrageous that the Press denounced them unanimously.

One MMM MP, Jean-Claude Barbier, actually told Parliament that God had personally spoken to him about what to say in “the august Assembly.”

MMM deputy Lysie Ribot said that women who had abortions were also more likely to have road accidents and get cancer of the cervix. She said, in a grotesque statement, that women who were raped were unlikely to fall pregnant because their ovulation got “blocked.” Adil Meea, yet another MMM MP, said religion was one of the last ramparts against degeneracy and depravity. Soon, he said, we will hear talk of same-sex marriages.

But, these were marginalized completely in the generally massive support for the law, not only in Parliament, but also outside.

—Lindsey Collen for LALIT

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