Fairly called Poto Mitan in Haitian Creole, women account for 50.49% of the Haitian population and represent the center pillar of most households. From commerce to education, their contributions to the society are undeniable. As the prosperity of the nation relies on its citizen’s well-being, it is no surprise that women’s health is a public health priority when it comes to the national health policies. But despite the efforts, unsafe abortion remains unfortunately a scourge as prevalent as poorly addressed.
I recall my last shift at Chancerelles’ maternity ward where a 16 year-old pregnant girl presented with intense abdominal pain and massive vaginal bleeding. At first, she did not admit any medication ingestion prior to the onset of her symptoms. But as we pursue the medical investigations, her 30-year-old boyfriend confessed that he had provided her with 4 pills of an over-the-counter drug known to provoke abortion in pregnant women. For the gynecology residents, it was a routine and classic case. Yet openly discussing unsafe arrest of pregnancy in Haiti is controversial since it’s so much of a taboo.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines unsafe abortion as a procedure for terminating a pregnancy performed by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment not in conformity with minimal medical standards, or both. Every year, 50.000 women, mostly from Latin America and Caribbean countries, die from consequences of unsafe abortion. According to the article 262 of the Haitian penal code, induced abortion no matter where or who performs it, is a criminal act and legally punished nationwide. But regardless of the law (or maybe because of it), complications of clandestine abortions are common motives of visit in general and obstetrical care facilities.
Carole, the latest patient I examined, was going through her second abortion experience and presented with severe anemia after 15 days of bleeding. When she got pregnant, economic difficulties arose, urging her to take the decision with her husband’s consent. But the specialized hospital she visited wouldn’t provide the desired services as forbidden by the law. So she turned to a clandestine clinic, even when the fees were high. As we shared our opinions, she said that it would be beneficial for women to abort safely with optimal medical assistance because the absence of a legal framework for safe abortion and technical capacities almost took her life away.
A few days later an obstetrician and HIV care specialist told me that to alter the perilous consequences of unsafe abortion in Haiti, it would be best to decriminalize it. Among the 530 women deaths per 100.000 inhabitants per year in Haiti, 120 are attributed to unsafe abortion. Fortunately, in the last quinquennium, the Ministry of Health has debated the subject and elaborated a new bill with several social groups to allow abortion for medical purpose and in rape cases. This is one step forward in the modernization of women’s health in Haiti even when it hasn’t reach the parliament yet.
But the main causes of induced abortion being socio-economic status, maybe the bill should also include women who desire to arrest their pregnancy for any reason other than congenital malformations or rape. It would be better if every woman could openly discuss it with their doctors.
Because it is the State’s duty to guarantee optimal health care to the population, and health is not restricted to the body. It includes mental and social well being.
It would be valuable to couple activism with effective health communication. Because often, the barriers to improving women’s health in Haiti are some erroneous traditional beliefs. My intention here is not to downplay any religious or cultural values, as some have actually improved women’s health. My advocacy is to conduct proper scientific studies on this public health issue and clearly communicate the best ways to prevent the consequences. After all, prevention costs exponentially less than complication management and as the recently published statistics show, the State’s funds have long been depleted.