Aborting Integrity – Reproductive Rights in Latin America

July 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

The Spanish government of Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, under pressure from the Catholic Church, is set to pass a controversial bill to end women’s right to opt freely for an abortion. Ahead of the rapidly approaching vote, which will take place this month, Alicia Simpson looks at the draconian laws of the Hispanic regions on the other side of the Atlantic.

Through the winding side-streets of downtown Santiago they march, their faces set in steely determination, their placards – spattered with crimson messages of Saquen sus rosarios de nuestros ovaries (Take your rosaries out of our ovaries) and Mi cuerpo es mío, yo decido (My body is mine, I decide) –  are held high, contrasting the golden, grandiose architecture of the capital city.

On and on the 5000 protestors twist, like a driven python pursuing its prey. A sea of red and white – the colours of the Chilean flag – men and women, of all ages, hold hands in solidarity as they fill the sky with their battle cries. Some female protesters parade with their breasts exposed; others carry banners with babies on a background of blood. Their message is clear: they want safe and legal abortion and they want it now.

These protestors have swamped the streets of Santiago, Chile, in support of 11-year-old Belén, who became pregnant after repeated rape by her mother’s partner. She was denied an abortion by the state. Belén went on national television to tell her story, saying that she wanted to have the baby.  She smiled innocently into the camera, accentuating her childish dimples. “It will be just like having a doll in my arms,” she said.

As part of the protest, demonstrators stormed a Catholic Church, ripping out pews and spray-painting the altars with blasphemous and pro-abortion messages. In response, Chilean President Sebastián Pinera described the protestors’ actions as “intolerant”; to Belén, he offered nothing but praise, commending her decision to keep the baby as showing “depth and maturity”.

Belén’s stepfather confessed to his crimes and was sent to jail. Her mother, on the other hand, defended him, claiming that the sex between her husband and her daughter was entirely consensual.  This provoked further uproar, and Belén was finally removed from her care. Towards the end of summer 2013, however, Belén’s trail goes cold, and she disappears from the headlines. It can only be assumed that she gave birth to her baby. What the future holds for the two of them, however, we can only guess.

Chile is one of only 29 countries worldwide in which abortion is banned altogether. No explicit exceptions will be made, even if the pregnancy risks the life of the mother, or if it is a result of rape or incest.  Curiously, just 25 years ago, Chile’s abortion laws were more liberal; therapeutic abortion – terminating a pregnancy if the woman’s life is at risk or if the foetus will not survive – was once legal in Chile. In 1989, however, General Pinochet criminalised all forms of abortion. Since then, the penalty for women to have an abortion, and doctors to induce an abortion, has been three to five years imprisonment.

If you travel 3,500 miles north, in both El Salvador and Nicaragua, there exists the same outright ban on abortion. The situation in these countries, however, is somewhat different.

In Nicaragua, the law contains an additional deadly detail: it primarily protects the life of the foetus over the life of the mother. Medical staff that treat women or girls suffering from HIV, cancer or cardiac emergencies are therefore equally subject to criminal sanctions, if these treatments could lead to the injury or death of the foetus.

Samantha Stowers, a Peace Corps worker in Nicaragua, spoke of how society has succumbed to silence in the face of abortion. “Abortion is something that just isn’t considered when a woman gets pregnant,” she explained. “They treat it as though their only option is to have the child, no matter what type of financial or relationship difficulties they find themselves in.” According to Stowers, this is not because unwanted pregnancy is not an issue among Nicaraguan women – because it is, especially among teenage girls – but because they feel as though they cannot fight against the law and must simply accept their fate. “There is no alternative here,” Stowers said. “You get pregnant, you have to have the baby.”

In El Salvador, the anti-abortion law is considered to be one of the most extreme in the world. Its criminalisation has serious, often fatal consequences for Salvadoran women and girls and the government imposes harsh penalties on both these women and their physicians. Each can face up to eight years imprisonment if they are found guilty of inducing a termination. As a result of certain alarming interpretations of the law, however, women are frequently charged with aggravated homicide; a crime that carries a sentence of 30 years or more.

The zero-tolerance El Salvadoran attitude comes with an even more barbaric extension. If a woman suffers a miscarriage and is rushed to hospital, the emergency room doctor will do what he can to help her. Satisfied, he will leave her room and automatically notify the authorities, who will then arrest the woman for having – what they term to be – an abortion. El Salvador even has a prosecutor’s office responsible for capturing, trying and incarcerating women who have abortions and miscarriages. Again, this so-called crime carries a sentence of anywhere between 2-50 years.

According to the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic, Ethical and Eugenic Abortion, 129 women alone have been convicted in the past decade, many of whom woke up handcuffed to their hospital bed, only to be dragged straight from the thin sheets to the cold, damp interior of a prison cell. More than half of these women were imprisoned for aggravated murder. Thirty-four remain in jail today.

The consequences of this aspect of the law are wholly predictable. Women bleeding, huddled, scared and alone; completely aware of what is happening, praying for the haemorrhaging to end and refusing to go to hospital.

The case of Beatriz was another that sparked international outrage. The 22-year-old Salvadoran woman was already suffering from lupus and kidney failure when she discovered she was pregnant. At five months, scans showed that the foetus was developing without parts of its brain and skull and would not survive more than a few hours outside of the womb. Backed by doctors and members of the Ministry of Health, Beatriz begged both the President of El Salvador and the country’s judges to allow her to terminate.

They ruled against her. Instead, she was allowed to undergo a premature caesarean section in her 27th week of pregnancy. Her baby survived just a few hours, after being born without large parts of its head and brain.

The Salvadoran court’s decision led to widespread international protests which splashed the story of Beatriz as far as the headlines of the BBC, the Guardian and the New York Times and galvanised activists around the world. For Farah Mohammed, from women’s rights charity, Girls’ Globe, however, this is a battle that is long and merciless. “The case of Beatriz is a strong example of the system failures,” she said.  “But unfortunately, though it may have stirred up discourse and brought to light opposing viewpoints, one case, horrible as it might be, is up against years of tradition, cultural norms and financial limitations. It’s a tough fight.”

The reality is that blanket abortion bans do not, as the State and the Catholic Church would have us believe, stop or even decrease abortion. Instead, complete abortion bans mean that young girls who have suffered years of child abuse are forced to give birth to babies that are the result of rape and girls subjected to sexual violence by family members are made to deliver their own brothers and sisters. They mean obscure pills bought on the black market, back-alley houses with the curtains drawn, knitting needles, coat hangers and death.  For blanket abortion bans do not have any discernible effect on lowering the number of abortions; they simply lead to desperation, panic and unsafe abortion practice.

On the streets of Nicaragua, Samantha Stowers has heard faint whispers of backstreet hideouts where desperate women can remedy their situations. “I’ve heard that if a woman wants an abortion, she can find someone who can perform one,” she said. “This will usually be a clinic that is held in a home which obviously isn’t being regulated for hygiene standards.” These are simply rumours, however, and Stowers doubts that anyone would be willing to point her in the direction of where to find one. Indeed, she would never dare to ask.

There is a common slogan heard among Latin American feminists: “The rich women abort and the poor women die.” Only those who do not suffer the extreme wealth inequalities of Latin America can afford overseas abortions. It is a two-tiered system: those with money have choices; those without have babies.

The Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health organisation, estimates that, of the 4.4 million abortions performed throughout Latin America in 2008, 95% were unsafe. This is compared with only 9% in Europe, where abortion is generally legal.

In an age where the repeated cry for gender equality and cultural diversity can be heard across the globe, the very existence of blanket abortion bans exemplifies a serious violation of basic human rights. For women who are ill, to be denied life-saving medical intervention is nothing short of inhumane.

Carmen Barroso, Regional Director for the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, has witnessed all too often the devastation and disruption that unsafe abortion practice can leave in its wake.  “Today, if a young woman dies from a botched abortion, her children are deprived of her love and her family lose her contribution to their well-being and success,” said Barroso. “Her country misses her productivity and unique contributions, and the whole world suffers from the denial of her human rights.”

There are, it must be noted, fairer abortion laws that exist in other Latin American countries. In Brazil, Guatemala and Venezuela, to name but a few, abortion is permitted to save a woman’s life, and in countries such as Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador, this is expanded to preserve physical health.

Yet, these somewhat more liberal laws fail to take into account the bigger picture. There are other, much simpler but equally tenable reasons why a woman may wish to terminate her pregnancy. What of financial stability and the need to feed and clothe an already existing family? Where does the law stand on bringing a child into a domestically abusive relationship? What of prepubescent school girls with hopes and dreams and futures?

These draconian controls are a direct result of the Roman Catholic Church’s blunt refusal to relinquish its lingering grip on Latin America’s politics; the argument that abortion encroaches on the rights of an unborn child is consecrated in El Salvador’s constitution which must, at all costs, be protected by the law. Tragically, much of Latin America also advocates the Catholic Church’s insistence on inhibiting birth control.

There exists an ever-expanding vicious cycle in the South – not only are sexually active young women forbidden from having an abortion, but affordable access to contraception and sexual education is also in dismally short supply. Just as outlawing abortion does not stop it from happening, withholding information and healthcare does not prevent sexual activity; it simply means that participants do so unaware of the risks. The Center for Reproductive Rights reports that, in 2008, approximately one-quarter of Latin American women, who wanted to avoid getting pregnant, were not using any contraceptives.

It is 2014, and the women of Latin America are still treated as second class citizens by their government. Farah Mohammed told of how gender inequality is still rife throughout the region. “Women are still, in many ways, not equal to men,” she said. “Because of their status, sex can be considered a duty, they may not have as much of a say in sexual activity – either how often or using contraception, and they may not have the financial means by which to facilitate independence.” She sighed. “Often, they even need their husband’s permission to get to take advantage of family planning services.”

Latin American countries have, for too long, used religious ideology to restrict, and even ban, women from accessing safe and effective birth control. However, significant events currently taking place in Chile highlight a glimmer of hope on the horizon for the 70,000 women who risk their lives each year to have an illegal abortion.

Carmen Barroso spoke of a recent surge of support for the decriminalisation of abortion in Chile. “President Michelle Barnet, who won last year’s election in a landslide victory, pledged on the campaign trail to lift the ban on abortion,” she said. “Bachelet’s administration is currently drafting a proposal that would allow abortion in some circumstances.” However, Barroso too emphasised the expansive battleground that Chilean citizens must cross. “Although change to the abortion law in Chile may be imminent, the road to get there will not be easy,” she admitted.

Yes, Beatriz and Belén give a temporary name and face to this issue, until such time as it is exhausted by the media, but this is an issue that is in desperate need of being forced into the mainstream. We must battle for those without names and faces, for the women who have lost their lives and their babies because their country did not believe they were worth saving.

In 21st century Latin America, where certain countries openly encourage and promote plastic surgery culture but where only Mexico City and Cuba make abortion freely available, a clear and unsettling message is being sent to female citizens: you have the right to control your own body, but only if you are making it more beautiful.

Credit: abcblogs.abc.es

Credit: abcblogs.abc.es

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, leader of the conservative People’s Party, would be wise to take heed of the Latin American example. Recent polls highlight that between 70 and 80% of Spanish citizens are opposed to the rolling back of their country’s abortion laws, and yet the vote is still set to go ahead this month.

The proposed reform is reminiscent of the Franco era, and a ‘yes’ vote will reverse the significant progress that has been made in the name of equality since 2010, when the current legislation – allowing abortion until the 14th week of pregnancy – was voted in.

As Chilean citizens pin all their hopes on President Michelle Barnet to reverse their country’s destructive laws, the People’s Party hurdles ten leaps backwards. Though the change to Spain’s abortion legislation would not make it quite as extreme as the laws of Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador – the bill will allow women to terminate in the result of rape, or if the mother’s health is at risk – Spain is blatantly sticking two fingers up at its struggling Hispanic counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic.

Preventing access to sexual education, family planning, contraception and termination causes active harm through unsafe sex and unsafe abortion and promotes gender inequality. Such outmoded and oppressive laws have no place in the modern world.  Policy makers must act logically, regardless of their personal views. As things stand, the future of many young, impoverished women like Beatriz and Belén remains politically uncertain. Women must hold the rights to their own bodies. After all, nosotras parimos; nosotras decidimos. We give birth; we decide. Mariano Rajoy would be well-advised to remember this.


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