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Jun 6, 2003

Illegal abortions: rising threat to Belizean women

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They face the daily threat of SARS and AIDS, along with the ever-present emergencies of gunshot wounds, choppings and automobile accidents. But few Belizeans are aware that one of the most common reasons for admissions to our public health facilities is complications arising from illegal abortions. Patrick Jones has more.

Patrick Jones, Reporting

It’s a scenario that is played out all too often at medical institutions all over the country where unwanted pregnancies end in abortion.

But what worries doctors at the country’s tertiary medical institution is that although abortion is illegal in Belize, the number of people who seek treatment at the K.H.M.H. for procedures gone wrong continues to climb.

Dr. Fernando Cuellar, Dir. of Maternal Services, K.H.M.H.

“As the statistics are showing, it’s between five hundred and fifty to six hundred abortions we see here in the country, that’s countrywide. At Karl Heusner it’s a about a little bit more than half of that six hundred, maybe three hundred and fifty to four hundred that we see here. Now out of that number, out of those four hundred per year, our guess, and it’s a calculated guess so to speak, its about sixty percent of those are provoked abortion. And I am going to say calculated guess, because there is no real way of proving that it was provoked abortion.”

Abortion is nothing new to Belize but with the legal status of the practice still very much on the negative side, more and more women are turning to “extra institutional” procedures, many of which land the patient in the K.H.M.H.

Dr. Jose Guerra, Chief of Obstetrics and Gynaecology

“When they reach casualty is because they have in other words an incomplete abortion. Meaning, an incomplete abortion is retained products of conception are still in uterus. So they come here, or they come when they are septic, meaning that something, someone interfere outside.”

That interference, according to doctors, is usually perpetrated on women at the lower end of the economic scale, sometimes using homemade devices and drug cocktails. But while botched abortions continue to take a toll on Belizean women, the question is: Are there alternatives to keep them away from the emergency room?

Dr. Fernando Cuellar

“Of course contraception, development planning units for adoptions for example, counselling and more social departments that counsels young women on unwanted pregnancies. There are a number of different strategies I am sure that exists that can reduce the number of provoked abortions.”

One organization that is working overtime to help women lift themselves out of difficult situations is Helping Hands. The anti-abortion group of volunteer women was formed two years ago as a result of what founder Margaret Robinson saw as a growing number of unwanted pregnancies.

Margaret Robinson, Director, Helping Hands

“Many times the woman is pressured by friend or family or boyfriend or husband into doing this. Often times a woman who is pregnant, especially in the early stages of her pregnancy, there are many things changing in her body and so she doesn’t see the whole picture clearly. And so she thinks that that is the quickest and easiest solution.”

Robinson says that despite its illegality, there are doctors and nurses, many of them in prominent institutions in Belize who continue to lend their expertise to this practice, often at the expense of the woman both financially and emotionally, as there is never a good time for an abortion.

Margaret Robinson

“Well it’s never safe for the child. The child almost always dies. And it’s really never safe for the woman either because women are by nature made to give life. And when we go against our nature as women, we suffer if not physically, as that can be the case, women often suffer emotionally or psychologically.”

But most abortions are the result of a larger behavioural problem. And while doctors can recommend contraception and counselling, the final decision is still left up to the individual; and that choice can come with devastating consequences.

Dr. Fernando Cuellar

“They would come with more significant bleeding of course, with a high, high possibility of infection, simple infection leading up to tetanus. We have seen some cases of tetanus caused by provoked abortions, and we even see some perforated uterus or perforated wombs where emergency surgeries have to be done on that individual.”

And until individual choices become more informed or laws change, both doctors Cuellar and Guerra say business will be brisk at the K.H.M.H. Patrick Jones, for News 5.

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