Dame Billie Miller, the Health Minister who spearheaded the legalisation of abortion in 1983 has expressed fear the clock could be rolled back on women’s reproductive health globally.
Dame Billie, who was given the Health portfolio in her very first ministerial assignment after being elected to office in 1976, campaigned for the decriminalistion of abortion in a bid to safeguard the health of young women who were dying from unsafe terminations.
Addressing the Women Share conference at the Cave Hill School of Business on Monday, Dame Billie recalled the hard-fought battle to overturn the law against abortion. It took seven years before the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act passed in 1983, making Barbados the first English-speaking Caribbean country to legalise abortion.
“Those things took a lot of time. I spent a lot of time when I was looking at the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act – [it was] very short, two pages. One doctor must sign on in the first trimester, two in the second, three in the third,” Dame Billie said.
She told the audience of mostly UWI and Barbados Community College students: “Your generation today, for the most part, I don’t think you will have any clue about what life was like in the decade of the fifties which were my growing up years.
“If I went to town with my mother and she met her friends, – she was a trained nurse/midwife… They would greet each other and it was always ‘how are the children?’ There were always two answers: ‘six living, three dead’ or ‘ten living, four or five dead’ there were always those two answers.
“The rate of mortality and morbidity, maternal and child, was sky high in Barbados in those years. It is amazing that in barely a decade through the 1950s … we turned that around.”
Dame Billie, now Ambassador Extraordinaire and Plenipotentiary, expressed the fear that the progress made over the past several decades are in danger of being rolled back, adding that gender equality remains under threat in both developed and developing countries.
“I had hoped that in a new century, a new millennium that the health and rights of women and girls would have been enlarged. Now strategies are being designed to reverse the gains of the 20th century as we speak,” she said, in an apparent reference to the recent attempts in some US states to reverse abortion laws.
Last week, 25 male senators in Alabama voted to criminalise almost all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.
Barbados’ Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was passed a decade after the landmark ruling the US Supreme Court in the case Roe v. Wade, that established a woman’s legal right to an abortion in 1973.
Dame Billie also questioned the lack of progress in eliminating infant and maternal mortality globally.
“It is very hard for me to accept that in both the developed and developing worlds infant and maternal morbidity and mortality are in reverse, and especially in the process of pregnancy and delivery, I have difficulty with this. This is such a large part of my life’s work.
“And I cannot believe that in 2019 I am reading online, I open a newspaper it is here in Barbados as well. This morning was an affront. When I opened my homepage, there was this horrendous story where a mother had buried her live just born child, and but for a dog sniffing in the yard, that little boy survived when the dog literally scratched him up.
“So these things worry me, parents are murdering their children for no reason, or if there are reasons I cannot comprehend them.”
She called on the women present to continue to press for gender equality, saying it will mean “rolling up our sleeves and starting over again and again”.
Dame Billie declared: “We can do this ladies, it is what has to be done that we do. So the ball is in our court again. I had hoped that we would have been going forward at a pace now in the 21st Century but now we have to backtrack to recover ground lost.”