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PNG doctors and activists fight to clear couple jailed over killing unborn child

Leoba Devana in the Bekut Prison on Buka Island in Bougainville. Photo: Jo Chandler James Channel in the male wing of the Bekut Prison. Photo: Jo Chandler

A newborn with her mother in the birthing suite at Goroka hospital in 2009. Photo: Jason South

Dame Carol Kidu (centre) at her home village in Port Moresby in 2011. She has joined the campaign for a review of Leoba Devana’s conviction. Photo: Jason South

A baby in the maternity ward of Goroka hospital in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea in 2009. Photo: Jason South

Children play on the boardwalks at Hanuabada on the outskirts of Port Moresby. Photo: Jason South

A mother with her baby in the maternity ward of the Goroka hospital in 2009. Photo: Jason South

A girl sits it the aisle of the Catholic church during Mass on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, in 2013. The church is one of the major providers of health care in PNG’s remote communities. Photo: Jason South

Buka, Bougainville: The women’s compound of Bekut Prison comprises a single crude timber hut secured by chicken wire and the rather more confining knowledge that there’s no escaping judgement in a tightly-bound island community.

Leoba Devana is one of two women serving time in the jail on Buka Island, part of Papua New Guinea’s Autonomous Region of Bougainville.

Between them they care for a third de facto inmate, Wesley, the second female prisoner’s disabled son. He has spent six of his 11 years in jail.

Devana hasn’t seen her own two small children since last October, when she was sentenced by the National Court in Arawa to five years’ jail for terminating her third pregnancy at around 16 weeks.

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.

Channel is also at Bekut, in the adjoining male compound with 60 other prisoners. Conditions are spartan and crowded, but there’s fresh air and lush bush beyond the wire and prisoners can sometimes venture out to play soccer or buy food on the roadside. It’s a profound improvement on the conditions he endured as he waited nine months for trial in a tiny, packed police lockup in Arawa town, in the south of Bougainville.

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

“PNG has the highest maternal mortality rate in the Pacific region [733 deaths per 100,000 births], and the second highest in the Asia Pacific – only Afghanistan is higher,” says Dame Carol Kidu, a former PNG government minister and opposition leader, and instigator of the Safe Motherhood Alliance PNG (SMALL). The equivalent figure in Australia is about 7 per 100,000 births.

PNG’S maternal mortality rate doubled between 1996 and 2006, according to national Demographic Health Surveys. The vast majority of deaths are preventable in a functional health system. Experts hoped a new survey, due this year, would reveal whether there had been any improvement, but national budget cuts mean the survey is now looking unlikely.

The application to the PNG Supreme Court on behalf of Devana and Channel is being coordinated by SMALL with support from the PNG Women Doctors Association amongst others.

“From the legal perspective it is important that this conviction does not remain as a precedent and potentially impact the lives of many more women,” says Kidu. “The stakes are high. It must be argued clearly and strongly with a focus on preventing more maternal deaths and promoting the importance of family planning accessibility.”

The charge is the legacy of a 19th-century Queensland law that found its way into the former colony’s statutes before independence in 1975. But until now, “no one has ever been convicted under the criminal code where abortion currently sits”, says Maarten Van de Reep, country director of Marie Stopes PNG.

Momentum around the case is not just a question of law, he says: “There is also the humanitarian aspect. The fact that it is such a sad case.”

As unique as the legal situation may be, the social, cultural and geographic circumstances that shaped Leoba Devana’s story can be found defining women’s lives in communities throughout PNG.

She 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.

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.

In 2014 the reproductive rights organisation Marie Stopes International established an office in Arawa, where Devana and Channel were living, but had barely established outreach programs when it came under threat from a group called the “No Go Zone Hardliners”, with links to powerful resistance figures in the 1988-98 Bougainville conflict.

Marie Stopes withdrew from Arawa last October after its vehicle was carjacked and the program leader, Claire Kouro – herself a Bougainville woman – was chased by a man wielding an axe.

Today Kouro provides support to Devana in jail from her new program base in Buka, and wonders how different things might have been if her program had succeeded in establishing in Arawa.

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 … As is usual in Papua New Guinea culture the husband was of no help in this stressful time.

“She said she was worried and scared that if she carried the baby for the full term she would not survive the birth. She was scared [for] her life.”

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.

In the hazy legal situation surrounding abortion in PNG, Devana’s concerns for her life appear to meet the criteria weighed by health workers in performing terminations. They rely on a 1982 opinion by the PNG state solicitor arguing that while the Criminal Code states that procuring an abortion is a crime, it can be lawful in circumstances where doctors believe “termination of the pregnancy is necessary to preserve the woman from serious danger to her life, physical or mental health”.

Further complicating Devana’s case is the fact that she was not charged with procuring an abortion but with killing an unborn child, opening up the question of when, in PNG law, a foetus becomes a child. There are conflicting precedents, with one determination saying that a foetus is a person at one month’s gestation, and another at seven months’.

These are questions Port Moresby law firm Twivey Lawyers, acting for Devana, will ask the Supreme Court to review in an application due to be lodged in the coming days.

The application argues that she was charged with the wrong offence, and that she pleaded guilty – as her public solicitor urged – under duress as she did not understand the charge or the issues.

As much of their sentences were suspended, the couple are due for release in June, but their advocates are anxious to secure Devana’s release sooner as she is pregnant again and has had no access to antenatal care. She says the couple’s families, shamed by their actions, ordered them to conceive another child in jail.

In PNG the contraceptive prevalence rate – that is, the percentage of married women and their partners using contraception – is low, around 24 per cent, says Van de Reep. This is despite heavy demand for contraception when it is made available – Marie Stopes provided services to 35,000 men and women last year – and surveys indicating that about half of women with two children didn’t want more, the figure spiking further after three.

“The Family Planning Policy spells out that everyone has a right to family planning, whether they are young, old, married, unmarried. The trouble is actually resourcing that policy,” Van de Reep says.

A study at Goroka hospital in 2015 found that 20 per cent of women presenting with miscarriages had taken steps to induce the miscarriage. In the absence of family planning access, unwanted pregnancies become more frequent.

“Although a concerted effort by the Government and individual MPs in their electorates has improved family planning coverage in some areas of PNG, family planning is still not comprehensive,” says Dame Carol Kidu.

“For the safety of women, establishing a legal precedent that reinforces the legal opinion that the medical profession have relied on to perform safe abortions is critical.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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