Fighting for Our Lives, Our Rights, Our Bodies: Reproductive and Sexual Rights and Justice in the Caribbean

Angelique V. Nixon is a Bahamas-born, Trinidad-based writer, scholar and activist. She is a lecturer at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, and a director of the feminist LGBTQI organisation CAISO: Sex and Gender Justice.

The attacks against progressive politics are intense and none so glaring as the backlash against reproductive justice and sexual rights. The removal of any aspect of human rights protection should concern us wherever it happens. The overturning of Roe v. Wade by the United States Supreme Court on June 24th, 2022 is a devastating setback for gender and social justice. This move reflects the stark reality of rising conservative politics, as well as steady attacks against social justice movements. At the same time, social movements are changing and responding to the backlash with pressure from communities and civil society on governments to protect rights.

The US Supreme Court decision has ushered in severe restrictions in the United States on safe and legal abortions in several U.S. states (with a number banning access all together). The unfolding political and legal responses to this decision will undoubtedly continue for a while even as the consequences are immediate and dire for too many people living in the U.S. The restrictions and bans will disproportionately impact young people, poor and working-class women, women of colour, queer and non-binary people, and migrants (among other marginalised groups). Decades of social science, public health, and medical research (as well as insights from healthcare professionals) emphasise that reproductive rights and justice are essential for the development and wellbeing of any society, for women and girls in particular, and a cornerstone for gender equality. The evidence is clear that governments should not legislate to control bodies or prevent bodily autonomy – especially for women and other marginalised or oppressed groups. The contradictions and hypocrisy prevail in the most powerful democracy where cis-gender heterosexual white men in positions of power determine and remove choices for too many people.

But what does this massive step back in reproductive rights in the United States mean especially for us in the Caribbean? What are the lessons here for our own struggles to protect reproductive rights and the movements for gender and sexual justice? Given the conservative and religious contexts within our postcolonial condition, we are at a precipice and must be on guard against the pressures of U.S. influence that we know affect the region daily. I wonder how we can use this moment to propel our movements forward and call upon our governments to protect reproductive rights and bodily autonomy through decriminalisation of abortion and sex work, and to actively advance gender justice and sexual rights. I wonder if we can see the ironies and parallels in demanding “my body, my choice” when it comes to vaccines and connect this need for bodily autonomy when it comes to reproductive rights.

The Caribbean Observatory on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, and the Caribbean Family Planning Affiliation (CFPA), issued a statement calling on Caribbean governments to respect and protect the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Caribbean People. They affirmed support of women and girls and bodily autonomy, and stated that: “It is a Human Right to have access to reproductive care. The removal of this Right negatively impacts the physical, mental, and economic health of a person, and thus the community at large.”

The statement also shared a brief overview of the current situation in the Caribbean region regarding abortion access and a reminder that:

“The criminalization of abortion is incompatible with international human rights obligations. Without access to safe abortion, poor women and girls often resort to unsafe means of abortions. Evidence strongly points out that despite restrictive laws, abortion is prevalent in the Caribbean with higher incidences of abortions than in countries with more liberal laws.”

In several Caribbean countries, legal and cultural restrictions on termination of pregnancies and the debates on rights are common and rife with contentious political divides. In the Anglophone Caribbean, only Barbados and Guyana have decriminalised abortion while three countries (Belize, St Lucia, and St Vincent) have expanded access only in medically-needed situations. In the rest of the Anglophone Caribbean, access to safe abortions is severely restricted and only available to those who have the means to travel elsewhere or with access to private healthcare. Even though Guyana has long established abortion rights, access to these services are limited and complicated in the public healthcare system (for several reasons including lack of implementation and resources). Again, this means that only people with means are able to access safe legal abortions, even in a country where it is legal and should be accessible. Meanwhile in Cuba, abortions have been accessible, safe, legal, and free for decades.

Caribbean governments must not follow the United States and their regressive and harmful treatment of reproductive health and rights. In fact, we should be following Cuba’s lead and looking towards Latin America where in recent years the right to abortion has been enshrined in law and protected in response to women’s movements (most recently in Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia) in spite of conservative pressures.

We must continue to raise the alarm as the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has led into a dangerous slope of curtailing reproductive choices and criminalising bodies for pregnant people with complications. Also, it appears a precedent has been set for not only controlling family planning and reproduction but also limiting sexual rights and LGBTQI+ rights. We are living in dangerous times – for women and girls, for queer people, for working class people, for migrants, for those on any margins – where our bodies, our lives, our rights are increasingly under control and surveillance.

On the issue of birth control, it is necessary to draw upon our regional knowledge and anti-colonial struggles that affirmed our rights to be in these spaces with freedom and integrity, and to make choices when it comes to bodies and reproduction. In an essay, “Reproductive Rights and Race Struggle in the Decolonizing Caribbean,” Nicole Bourbonnais cites a Trinidadian “Family Planning Report” published by the People’s National Movement in 1965 that reveals state support of reproductive choices:

“If people are to be free to make a choice they must have a choice to make. There is no choice available to people who have never heard of contraception, or if they have heard do not know where to go to learn about it. There is no choice available to the poor in areas where no subsidised or free services are provided… It is certainly not the business of the State to force any of its citizens to use birth control, but while it does not offer it, it forces many of them not to use it.”

In earlier women’s movements in the Caribbean, women shared the need for abortion access and birth control. As shared by Nicole Bournonnais, Mayme Aiken, a prominent organiser in Jamaica in the 1930s, “related stories of sick mothers struggling for survival or resorting to illegal abortion to limit their families”. Aiken argued that through birth control clinics:

“Women will acquire a general knowledge of the care of their bodies… which would be a great contribution to family welfare. Why not give a fair chance to every child that is born; and the right to every woman of voluntary parenthood?”

These questions of rights, choices, and care remain as relevant today as it was in the past – for not only women and children, but for all communities and people

Further, forced sterilisations and birth control medical testing on Black and Brown women in the Caribbean (and Americas) have to be carefully understood in calls for reproductive and sexual rights. We must confront mistrust of medical systems, family planning, and population control because of past injustices. We carry these memories and stories – haunted by colonial legacies and control over bodies.

This is why we must demand sexual justice – defined as affirming one’s bodily and sexual autonomy, agency, rights, and freedom. Sexual justice includes reproductive rights and justice (safe and legal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare) and an understanding that Sexual Rights are fundamental to our Human Rights. As practitioners and activists argue, the control over women and girls’ bodies and sexuality increases gender-based violence and places severe limitations on mobility, education, employment, and participation in public life. Similarly, lesbians, gay men, bisexual, queer, transgender, intersex, gender non-conforming people and sex workers (and others who disrupt sexual and gender norms) face greater risk of violence, stigma, and discrimination because of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Movements for gender and sexual justice are obviously aligned but are too often divided because of homophobia, transphobia, and respectability politics. Black feminist lesbian poet and thinker Audre Lorde insisted that we must be inclusive in all social justice movements no matter how hard it might be. She says: “there is no thing as a single issue struggle, because we do not live single issue lives.” I call upon us to stand up for each other and alongside each other as our movements are closely aligned in the demands for justice, rights, and freedom. We must affirm a sexual culture of justice for all.

Reproductive health professionals, sexual rights activists, and feminists have long agreed that sexual rights underpin the enjoyment of all other human rights and are necessary for equity and justice for all. This is why we must continue to be on guard and in the struggle for our rights to bodily integrity and sexual justice – there we might find our liberation.