16 de Enero: El aborto inseguro en Bolivia
I’d like to use the first post of 2010 to share the most recent bulletin of the La Paz-based feminist organization CIDEM (Centro de Información y Desarrollo de la Mujer), and to reflect on the phenomenon of unsafe abortion in Bolivia. Although perhaps not the most uplifting theme to address at the start of the new year, in Bolivia, it is a highly important one—in the late 1990s, it was estimated that fully 43% of maternal deaths in the country resulted from complications from abortion (Zulawski, 2007). The current issue of CIDEM’s Spanish-language bulletin, La Escoba, can be accessed here:
CIDEM’s publication La Escoba, which is released two to three times per year, addresses a number of important issues affecting women in Bolivia. The most recent edition, published in November 2009, centers around the theme of feminicide. As I have mentioned previously in the blog, feminist activists around the world are engaged in struggles to incorporate the term feminicide—defined as the murder of women simply because we are women—into national penal codes.
It is believed that, by including feminicide in legal codes, murderers of women will no longer be able to slide by with “crime of passion” defenses, which have often gained these criminals fairly brief prison sentences. Official recognition of feminicide as a crime specifically targeting women—to be distinguished from homicide or manslaughter—would necessarily render a murder’s mental state at the time of the crime irrelevant. In other words, with feminicide on the books, a man who kills his wife due to suspected or actual infidelity, because she has asked for a divorce, or for any other commonly cited excuse, would still face a just punishment for his crime—according to CIDEM, 30 years to life, without the possibility of parole.
Of the six distinct types of feminicide that CIDEM identifies in its bulletin, one in particular caught my attention: feminicide due to poorly practiced abortion. Of the 22 feminicides registered in Bolivia between July and October of 2009, two were deaths of women due to abortion. In the United States or in certain areas of Europe, it is now nearly impossible to imagine that one of the most commonly practiced surgeries in the world could end in death, although those alive before the procedure was legalized know just how common this was. However, in Bolivia, abortion-related death continues to be a reality. Although in Bolivia abortion is illegal in most circumstances, 6 of 10 women will have at least one abortion in her lifetime–an estimated 30,000 abortions are performed per year (Zulawski, 2007).
It should not be surprising that, even in a country where abortion is illegal, so many procedures are performed annually. In fact, abortion rates are often higher in countries where the procedure is illegal, since birth control access and education are also often restricted in these nations. (For example, compare Bolivia’s rate of 6/10 women having an abortion in her lifetime to the U.S.’s rate of 1/3.) So, if making abortion illegal does not reduce abortion rates, what does illegal abortion accomplish? Quite simply, women’s deaths. As Susan Cohen of the Guttmacher Institute points out, “abortion’s legal status has much less to do with how often it occurs than with whether or not it is safe… The fact is that almost all unsafe abortions occur in the developing world” (Guttmacher Policy Review, Fall 2009, Vol. 12, No. 4).
But, wait—what does it mean to call “poorly practiced abortion” a form of feminicide, a murder of women simply because they are women? CIDEM’s revolutionary idea is this—that the same conditions that have shaped Bolivia’s society to be machista and to believe in men’s natural right to control women’s bodies, dead or alive, have also created laws that attempt to deny women control over their own reproduction. I say “attempt,” because a state’s control over its citizenry can only ever be partial—women will continue to have abortions, regardless of its legal status. Instead, the penalization of abortion fosters a culture of death—of women’s deaths, of feminicide—by fomenting an unregulated, class-based, abortion care.
While women with resources will pay $100 for a safe abortion with a private physician, the poorer majority will visit run-down clinics in busy market districts, paying $15 for an abortion performed on an office desk by an unqualified provider using unsterilized instruments. Some women have reported being drugged and raped by these providers after receiving their abortions. These providers, fearing legal repercussions, rarely allow women to return to the clinic if they have severe bleeding or pain following their procedures, so many women do not seek follow-up care. Some die.
It may be tempting to blame these unscrupulous abortion providers for women’s deaths, but that is insufficient. It is the joint responsibility of the state, of policymakers, of activists, of medical providers, and of anyone in favor of human rights, to recognize that abortion is a public health issue—a women’s health issue, an issue of life and death—and to do the right thing: to legalize abortion, aquí, allá, y en todas partes.
As always, I welcome your comments and questions.