Why most Guam politicians dodge the question on abortion
"Do you support legal abortion?" At least 15 senatorial candidates, mostly Republicans, responded "no" to the question posed by the pro-life group Esperansa Project in a pre-election survey. Speaker Tina Muna Barnes,* a Democrat, responded "yes," while 12 other candidates declined to respond.
"The candidates were informed that the results would be made public and that a 'no response' would be counted as a 'yes,'" said Sharon O'Mallan, a group member who spearheaded the survey. "But I can't speak for them."
On Guam, a predominantly Catholic community with a strong western influence, abortion is a political hot potato that could win votes from one side and cost votes from the other. Hence the candidates' tendency to shirk the question -- if they could-- in a bid to keep a semblance of neutrality.
"It's still a difficult topic to talk about," O'Mallan said. "Some candidates who answered yes or no added comments to their responses to explain their positions."
Based on the survey results, four Democrats and 11 Republicans are pro-life. Three Republicans and nine Democrats did not respond.
Survey result provided by Sharon O'Mallan
"Every time the subject of abortion comes up, the feminists would counter it with women's rights. They refer to pro-life people as 'old ladies from the church," O'Mallan said. "There's a whole group of people who are pro-life, not just Catholic women."
Choosing life, she added, abides by "moral law" rather than religion. "Pro-choice allows the murder of unborn infants who cannot speak for themselves," O'Mallan said.
Like other civil rights issues, abortion is a polarizing topic. On Guam, where local Democrats and Republicans do not necessarily subscribe to ideologies, abortion crosses party lines.
The last piece of legislation on abortion, which was introduced in the 34th Guam Legislature, proposed a ban on abortion of a fetus 20 weeks and older. The bipartisan bill had been shelved after a highly divisive public hearing.
"The bill went nowhere," O'Mallan said. "Doctors who used to perform abortions on Guam accused us of being bad for their business."
Sen. Therese Terlaje corrected the earlier version of this story, which identified her with a "yes" response (based on the survey result provided to the media).
Terlaje clarified that she did not respond "yes," but replied to the survey with the following comments:
"Abortion is currently recognized under certain circumstances by the Supreme Court of the United States in its interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, applied to Guam by the Organic Act. The Guam Legislature is sworn to uphold the Constitution and cannot deny a person a right that is currently recognized by the Supreme Court. Abortion often becomes an issue when a woman feels she is in a crisis.
"As a lawyer and a senator I have worked hard for increased financial, medical, housing, adoption, legal protection, .and counseling assistance to women and children in order that they will feel supported in their time of need and when they are facing a crisis in any form, passed laws deterring the release of violent criminals, strengthening CPS and victims’ rights. There is much more to be done, and these crises have increased dramatically recently due to severe unemployment and other challenges caused by the pandemic. I humbly thank and ask for your organization’s continued assistance as we work together to help women and children who are facing these critical challenges on our island."
Sen. Mary Torres responded "no" to the survey with the following comments:
"While I am personally pro-life, I believe this extends to protecting the rights of all individuals, throughout their lives, especially our most vulnerable. That is why I authored the safe haven initiative for newborn infants (P.L. 34-120), expanded the number of homes for our foster kids (P.L. 35-34), and eased the process for our manåmko' and homeless to obtain identification (P.L. 35-32 and Bill 378-35).
"That said, I also recognize that previous attempts to ban pre-viability abortions on Guam have been deemed unconstitutional by the Attorney General of Guam, the United States Supreme Court, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Guam, and other circuits.""
Read related story
Guam law currently allows a woman to have an abortion within 13 weeks of gestation. From 13 to 26 weeks, abortions can be performed if the doctor has “reasonably determined” that the fetus has a great physical or mental defect or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or that the pregnancy would endanger the life of the mother or would greatly impair the physical and mental health of the mother.
Outside of those conditions, the doctor performing an abortion can be charged with a third degree felony.
In 2008, the Guam Legislature passed The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, which refers to “an abortion where the baby is partially delivered live and then killed before its head is delivered.” The physician performing partial abortion will face up to 10 years in prison.
Based on the Abortion Worldwide’s March 2017 statistics, an average of 265 abortions a year were performed on Guam between 2006 and 2017.
Since July 2018, however, Guam lost the island’s only remaining abortion provider at the Women’s Clinic in Tamuning. Dr. William Freeman retired and turned over his clinic to Dr. Jeffrey Gabel, who refused to provide abortion service and has since renamed the clinic “Dr. Gabel’s Clinic Obstetrics & Gynecology Para Famalao’an.”
Dr. Edmund Griley, the first abortion provider on island who owned the Guam Poly Clinic, retired in 2016. He had turned over the clinic to Dr. John Chiu, who doesn’t perform abortions.
Without a local facility that provides clinical service for pregnancy termination, women needing abortions are compelled to fly out of Guam to get the procedures done elsewhere — if not resorting to the back-alley option.
(*Correction: Speaker Tina Muna Barnes' "yes" vote was inadvertently overlooked in the earlier version of this story. Our sincere apologies.)