Couple in Bougainville jailed after abortion

Leoba Devana is serving time in the jail on Buka Island, part of Papua New Guinea’s Autonomous Region of Bougainville after having an abortion.

She was charged and convicted – erroneously, in the eyes of a coalition of senior medical, legal and human rights advocates in Port Moresby who have taken up her case – with the unlawful killing of an unborn child.

Her husband, James Channel, received a similar sentence for helping buy the drugs to induce abortion through the back door of a local clinic.

It was common knowledge around Arawa that a health worker there ran a thriving business selling and administering misoprostol.

The couple are understood to be the first in PNG to be jailed for abortion.

Those fighting for a Supreme Court review of the judgment say the case looms as a dangerous precedent in a country where access to contraception is scarce, motherhood is a perilous business and unsafe abortions are shockingly high.

Leoba was raised in a village in mountain country in central Bougainville.

A good student, at the end of grade eight she was invited to continue her education but had been promised in marriage.

At 16 she was sent to her betrothed’s family to work in their food garden and household and prove herself before marrying at 18.

In October 2014 Devana was 23, with a two-year-old son and a six-month-old girl she was breastfeeding.

Both births had been difficult, the second leaving her injured and traumatised after the 4.8-kilogram baby got stuck.

Around this time she fell pregnant again.

As Justice Sir Kina Bona, who presided over the case in the National Court, observed in his written judgment: “She was weak, she was short of blood and she found she was not coping too well.”

Devana was about 4 months pregnant when she and her husband obtained the drugs for the termination in early January 2015.

When she went to Arawa clinic after two days of bleeding and complications, police were summoned and Channel was jailed.

Devana was ordered from her bed by her irate mother and instructed to walk 20 minutes up the road and turn herself in.

She passed out in the cells but was cared for by other inmates.

A Catholic in a strongly faithful community, she was also the sole female heir to a matrilineal heritage and so felt intense pressure to produce daughters.

Contraception was never discussed within her family, she says, and she recalls no instruction on the topic at school or from health workers.

While PNG has a strong policy advocating universal access to family planning, in much of the country the message is not heard due to remoteness, pockets of cultural and religious resistance, and the lack of basic services.

In many communities the only health care is provided by the Catholic Church, which declines facilitating access to modern contraception, although it is funded by the PNG government to provide a full range of services.


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News category: Asia Pacific.

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