Archive for abortion

26 de Septiembre: El aborto en México

Posted in abortion, Mexico, reproductive rights with tags , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

When the tide begins to turn for women in Latin America, the right wakes up.  An article in the New York Times this week reports on the growing list of abortion restrictions being passed in states in Mexico since the country’s capital legalized elective abortion some three years ago.

25 de Agosto: El aborto y la inmigración

Posted in abortion, blogging, immigration, reproductive rights with tags , , , , , on August 25, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

I would like to bring to my readers’ attention a few articles that have emerged in the last couple of weeks highlighting the particularly vulnerable situation of immigrant women seeking access to reproductive health care, especially abortion.  In light of recent debates in the U.S. on immigration reform, including the anti-immigration legislation passed in Arizona and other states, it seems particularly important to consider how these policies affect the reproductive rights of women immigrants.  In general, the forecast is not good–while ABC News notes that immigrant women are frequently  customers of “cheap, do-it-yourself abortion,” guest writer Marcy Bloom of the blog “Trust Women” points to the dual attacks of the right on immigration and reproductive rights.  I encourage you all to read these pieces, and join in on the debates.

15 de Agosto: Noticias

Posted in abortion, Argentina, birth control, Bolivia, Latin America, reproductive rights, women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, a variety of news bits on Bolivia and reproductive rights around the world.

First, a story of social and political conflict in Bolivia’s Potosí department, where for the past 18 days, strikers have blocked roads and led social protests in the area.  Protestors are attempting to hold the Evo Morales government responsible for a number of projects that, although promised some time ago, have scarcely advanced.  The projects include an the construction of an international airport in the city of Potosí, the establishment of a new cement factory in the region, and government preservation of the historic Cerro Rico–the mountain pictured below whose silver deposits essentially financed the Spanish conquest of Latin America over 500 years ago.

The Andean Information Network (AIN) interprets recent protests in Potosí as evidence that Evo Morales’ traditional bases of support are disappointed with the administration’s failure to keep its promises.  While the Morales government often describes protests as led by the right wing, the AIN notes that, “seventy-eight percent of Potosí voters chose Morales in the 2009 presidential elections, second only to voters in the La Paz department.”  La Paz’s paper La Razón reports today that a variety of officials of the Morales government have been in negotiations with the Potosí protestors, and that some progress has been made on at least one point of contention, the plan to construct an airport.  However, hunger strikes and street blockades have continued, since five other major grievances have not yet been addressed.  Meanwhile, in the city of Potosí, families have been subsisting largely on noodles and rice, since blockades have prevented meat from reaching local markets.

None of the coverage of the Potosí protests that I have encountered thus far has discussed women’s particular participation in the protests or how women and girls are being affected by the conflicts.  In similar mobilizations in Bolivia, however, women have taken an active role.

This photo of the Cerro Rico mountain and Potosí city courtesy of Gerd Breitenbach, a user of Wikimedia Commons.

As political conflict rages in Bolivia, Argentina received an embarrassingly poor report card last week on women’s reproductive and sexual rights.  Last Tuesday, Human Rights Watch released a 52-page report chronicling, “the many obstacles women and girls face in getting the reproductive health care services to which they are entitled, such as contraception, voluntary sterilization procedures, and abortion after rape.”  Regular readers will remember that these are also common problems in Bolivia.  Their prevalence in Argentina, however, is even more appalling considering that this country’s socioeconomic indicators tower above those of Bolivia, even after the economic crisis of 2000-2001.

Similar to conditions in Bolivia, the report, entitled, “Illusions of Care: Lack of Accountability for Reproductive Rights in Argentina,” notes the high prevalence of illegal abortion, high rates of maternal mortality due to abortion, and the failure of judges and doctors to authorize and perform those abortions that are legal (ie., in cases of rape). Access to contraceptives is also restricted due to a variety of issues, such as long waits at clinics, the (unauthorized) demand that a husband sign for a woman’s sterilization procedure, and financial costs.  These issues–and other, similar ones around the world–prompted one Guardian blogger to call for a UN agency specifically devoted to women. That’s an idea that’s easy to get behind.

The Human Rights Watch report on Argentina can be downloaded here.

The San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Finally, good news from the U.S.A.: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in that country approved a new pill to be used to prevent pregnancy after intercourse. The medication, called “Ella,” is considerably more effective than the morning-after pill that is currently on the market, Plan B.  While Ella will prevent pregnancy for up to 5 days following sex, Plan B is only effective for 3 days, and becomes less effective the later it is taken after the event.

This move by the FDA has been interpreted as “evidence of a shift in the influence of political ideology at the FDA,” since its approval moved more quickly than that of Plan B, and, as one activist mentioned, was “‘based on scientific evidence, not politics.'”  This does not mean that the battle has been won, however–anti-abortion activists have been quick to describe Ella as an abortifacent, and some are planning campaigns against the drug.  At the moment, women can obtain Ella with a prescription from their health care provider at any time, so they can keep a supply at home.  Go get yours today!

20 de Junio: Algunos pequeños avances

Posted in abortion, Bolivia, reproductive rights with tags , , , , on June 20, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, I had the opportunity to speak to the public in Bolivia about unwanted pregnancy and abortion in La Paz and El Alto.  Although time does not permit me to present a full report here, I would like to share with my readership a few important points about these phenomena.  And to those that attended the talk, and to those who could not:  muchísimas gracias a todas las mujeres que abrieron sus corazones para hablar conmigo, y a todos los individuos e instituciones que me aportaron durante los últimos tiempos.  Su apoyo ha sido imprescindible.

– Of a fairly random sample of 55 Bolivian women, 26 (roughly 47%) reported having experienced at least one unwanted pregnancy in their lives.  Of these 26 women, 16 ended up having their children anyway, while 9 underwent illegal abortions.  Of the 16 women who ended up giving birth, several had attempted to abort through various means, including by throwing themselves down flights of stairs and beating themselves in the abdomen.

-Of the sample of 55 women, 12 in total had at least one abortion.  3 of these women were FORCED to abort–two by their partners, and one by her mother.

-Of these 55 women, 5 became pregnant at least one time due to RAPE.

-Of the 12 women who had abortions, only 2 were adolescents at the time of the procedure, and half of the women were married or partnered.  6 of the women continued to have children after their abortions–meaning that abortion is used not only to avoid unwanted pregnancy, but to space wanted pregnancies.

-The majority of women in this sample who had abortions earn less than $214 per month.

-Of four women who went to public hospitals for treatment following incomplete abortions that they admitted were provoked, one had hired a midwife to insert a sound into her cervix; one bought abortifacient herbs in the street, and two went to private (but poor quality) medical clinics near–ironically–the city’s public cemetery.

-Of 50 women who went to the Hospital de la Mujer, a large public hospital, with “miscarriages” during 1994, 50% reported that their miscarriages had been caused by “accidents” such as falls and lifting heavy items.  Most doctors assert that the majority of these accidents are intentional.

-Of a sample of some 25-30 individuals who by law are required to report cases of provoked abortion to authorities, around 70% fail to do so because they do not believe that women who seek abortions, nor the doctors who provide them, should be jailed. The other 30% either doesn’t know they are required to report these cases to the police, or they simply lack the time to do so.

-Of a sample of 113 individuals in total–representing a variety of social sectors, occupations, ages, ethnicities, and income levels–the majority report being against abortion.  At the same time, 95% of this group knows at least one woman who has gotten an abortion, and 100% knows exactly where to go to obtain one.  Several people characterize illegal provoked abortion in Bolivia as, “un secreto a voces,” or, an open secret.

-6 of 10 women in Bolivia will have at least one provoked abortion in her lifetime.  Most of these women will never tell anyone about their abortions.

29 de Mayo: Una variedad de ironías

Posted in Bolivia, women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, a smattering of news pieces on women and mothers in Bolivia, and a heartening noticia about Bolivia’s neighbor.

Last Thursday was Mother’s Day in Bolivia, and in La Paz, this manifested itself in schoolyards full of children dancing in expensive costumes (that mothers doubtless had to pay for), sales of stuffed bears and other kitschy items, family dinners, and even an evening display of fireworks. Although I was hopeful that the local press would highlight some of the more sinister aspects of motherhood in Bolivia–such as the fact that Bolivia continues to be the most dangerous place in Latin America to undertake the journey of motherhood, with the highest maternal mortality rates in the region–I was, as I often am with the local press, disappointed.

Instead, the La Paz daily La Razón brought us two light-hearted stories for mother’s day, one highlighting a concert for local mothers, and the other discounts to take advantage of when buying gifts for mom.  For anyone unfamiliar with Latin American cultural paradigms, it bears noting that the mother-son relationship is laden with all kinds of real and imagined meanings in Latin America.  Local men often liken their own mothers to the Virgin Mary, and unfavorably compare their girlfriends and wives to this unrealizable model.  Although this pattern can clearly prove disastrous for Latin American women and heterosexual relationships, it can also be kind of funny. All I’m gonna say is, even if you don’t read Spanish, check out the picture of the singers at the mother’s day concert and imagine the mother-son dynamic playing out in the audience last Thursday night.

In addition to the “official” mother’s day articles, La Razón brought us two other stories related to motherhood this week.  The first is the terrible account of a woman whose infant was stolen from a hospital in the city of Santa Cruz just hours after birth.  Although child trafficking is a serious problem in Bolivia, this kidnapping seems to just be a horrible fluke, unrelated to that broader phenomenon.  The article notes that a woman dressed in white took the baby from its mother’s room saying that she was going to have it vaccinated, and then disappeared.  Oddly–considering that Romani are not known to live in Bolivia–police believe that the kidnapper is a “foreign woman, a gypsy.”

This infant’s kidnapper could indeed have been a foreigner to Bolivia. Regardless, however, the belief that a kidnapper of Bolivian children is foreign speaks to another cultural paradigm in Bolivia, one with deep historical roots–that of the pishtaco. In Andean lore, pishtacos are typically white, man-like creatures that harvest indigenous bodies for profit.  When the railroad first barreled through the Bolivian countryside at the turn of the twentieth century, indigenous campesinos believed that pishtacos would suck fat out from their bellies and use this to grease the rails.  (If your interest is piqued, I would highly recommend Mary Weismantel’s Cholas and Pishtacos: Stories of Race and Sex in the Andes.)  Cultural paradigms aside, let’s hope police are able to reunite this woman with her child.

This image of La Paz from El Alto’s 16 de Julio market was provided by a guest photographer.

La Razón’s second unofficial mother’s day piece informs us that, from now on, all pregnant women in Bolivia will be required to undergo mandatory HIV and Syphilis testing.  Apparently, “there are 150 children in Bolivia living with HIV/AIDS, and 12 of every 1,000 newborns are infected with congenital syphilis.”  Although reducing STI rates in mothers and infants alike is a goal any right-thinking individual would support, I am, as I have mentioned before, wary of programs that force or coerce women to seek health care.  These programs are often intrusive, and do not generate enough patient trust in health care facilities to bring them through the door.  The current article does not share any details on how mandatory testing will be implemented, but so far, I am skeptical.  Stay tuned for more details.

Finally, the kick-ass women at Women on Waves bring us some good news about Peru: on May 27, Lima’s Collective for Free Information for Women (CLIM) announced the introduction of a new telephone hotline for women seeking information about medical abortion, or the “abortion pill.”  Free hotlines such as this one are key in countries where abortion is illegal, since many desperate women take medications to terminate pregnancy without the necessary medical information to make these procedures safe.  Since 350,000 women in Peru are estimated to abort illegally every year, this hotline could play a crucial role in reducing maternal deaths due to abortion.  Congrats, CLIM!

And to women everywhere: happy Mother’s Day.  Here’s to all the work that you do, and to supporting your right to decide when, and if, to do it.

15 de Mayo: Lo que es ilegal, se puede ignorar

Posted in abortion, adoption, Bolivia, child abandonment with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, New York Times blogger Nicholas Kristof opines, “my sense is that the illegality of abortion isn’t as large an element in maternal mortality as some people believe it is.”  On the one hand, Kristof points to a certain truth–just because abortion is illegal does not mean that it is not available.  Thousands of women undergo relatively safe abortions every day in countries where the procedure is illegal.  However, in these same countries, many more thousands of women end up getting unsafe abortions, since the key to accessing a safe pregnancy termination is usually money.  And most women worldwide–let’s face it–are poor.

The problem with abortion’s illegality is that it creates a class-based abortion industry, where women with money can access safe procedures, but women without, cannot.  Since where it is illegal abortion officially does not occur, government and public health officials can ignore the glaring class disparities in abortion care and in the resulting maternal deaths.  Since it is difficult to regulate an industry that officially does not exist, unscrupulous, unsafe abortion clinics exist alongside relatively safe medical centers, and most women do not have the information they need to make careful decisions about which to visit.

Reflecting on Kristof’s comments, I am further struck by how many aspects of unwanted pregnancy operate on the margin of the law in Bolivia.  The illegality of abortion–just one strategy for confronting unwanted pregnancy–is by far the most glaring.  Womankind estimates that 30,000 illegal abortions occur per year in Bolivia.  According to the country’s penal code, the individuals who perform abortions and the women who have them are subject to incarceration for three to six years.  However, as of 2004 only two judicial cases were ever brought against abortion practitioners, and both cases were later dismissed by the Supreme Court.  As far as I know, no woman has ever been incarcerated in Bolivia for having had an abortion.  In other words, the law criminalizing abortion doesn’t work on two fronts–it doesn’t prevent illegal abortions, and it doesn’t penalize abortion practitioners or the woman who undergo the procedures.  Finally, as I have mentioned before, laws allowing for legal abortions in Bolivia–in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the woman’s health–are equally ineffective.  Since 1973, when a stipulation was made in Bolivia’s penal code to allow abortion in the above cases, only a handful of legal abortions have ever been performed.

Other women, when met with unwanted pregnancy, end up abandoning their children rather than having abortions.  This may be because they are so traumatized by the pregnancy, or too poor to afford an abortion, that they are unable or unwilling to terminate the pregnancy before the child is born.  In other cases, women may abandon children that were and are “wanted” due to crushing economic circumstances or domestic abuse.  While some women will abandon infants in orphanages like the one pictured in this post, others will leave their children with neighbors, on street corners, or, notoriously, in garbage bins.  Like laws penalizing women who get abortions, laws targeting parents who abandon their children seem to be equally ineffective–in 2003, the national police registered two cases of child abandonment in the La Paz department, while local anti-abandonment activists argue that 17,000 children are abandoned in the country yearly.

Regardless of where they are left, most abandoned children will end up in orphanages. Orphanages in Bolivia come in several varieties; some depend on the state, some on private institutions and donors, and still others are illegal and even clandestine, with no relationship to local authorities.  One association of young people who grew up in orphanages recently told me that children residing in illegal orphanages have little chance to be adopted–at least not through legal channels.  (Even worse, sexual abuse in all types of orphanages is apparently the pan de cada día, or an everyday occurrence.)  While adoptions do take place, most Bolivian parents hope to adopt children under the age of one, who they can pass off to neighbors as a natural child.  The bureaucratic processes required to adopt children are so lengthy, however, that few children are adopted before they reach their first birthday, and once s/he turns one year old, a child’s chance of being adopted plummets.

Although it is difficult to find trustworthy data, activists in the fields of child abandonment and adoption insist that illegal adoptions are likely more numerous in Bolivia than legal ones.  While some of these adoptive parents have discovered children on their doorsteps or taken in kids from neighbors and friends, others, desperate to adopt, resort to illegal channels to bring kids home from orphanages.  Even adoptive parents who have completed the adoption process legally admit that they were tempted to go the illegal route to avoid the costly and lengthy processes associated with adopting a child.  Because of the increased legal and ethical issues involved with international adoptions, most of these are subject to rigorous scrutiny to ensure their legality. Since the rise of President Evo Morales, however, international adoptions face new restrictions and are on the decline.  In the meantime, nearly all of the orphanages in La Paz and El Alto are facing serious over-crowding–even the illegal ones, to which the state, when in a pinch, occasionally sends children.

In sum, abortion is not the only consequence of unwanted pregnancy that is illegal in Bolivia–child abandonment, the housing of abandoned children, and even adoption often operate under the table.  On the one hand, these institutions, even illegal, function–women get abortions, and children are adopted.  But how well do these institutions function?  I must say that I have to disagree with Kristof.  Illegal abortion does lead to devastating rates of maternal death. Illegal child abandonment, and the housing of these children in clandestine orphanages, leads to children who lack the possibility of legal identities and families.  When the state allows problems of this magnitude to languish in dubious legal territory, it reserves the right to ignore their consequences.  But avoidance will not work forever.  Eventually, something has got to change.

29 de Abril: Ojo–la ley no te protegerá

Posted in abortion, Bolivia, sexual violence with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

A couple of recent events have revealed the fragility of women’s right to choose in Latin America and in the United States, despite laws guaranteeing abortion access in those countries (or at least, under certain circumstances).

A few weeks ago, in a piece for Womanist Musings, I commented on the case of a nine-year-old-girl in Brazil who, after much difficulty, succeeded in securing a legal abortion when a rape left her pregnant with twins.  In that case, the Brazilian Archbishop ex-communicated the entire medical team that performed the procedure, along with the girl’s mother.  Now, RH Reality Check brings us the story of another young girl, raped and impregnated by her step-father in Quintana Roo, Mexico.  According to the local reproductive rights group, GIRE (Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida), the pregnant girl and her mother “received biased information from authorities about their rights and access to abortion.”

As in Bolivia and in many other areas of Latin America, women in Mexico who become pregnant as a result of rape are legally permitted to have an abortion.  However, in practice, the bureaucratic processes necessary to secure a legal abortion, as well as the tendency of anti-abortion authorities to pressure women against the procedure, make cases of legal abortion fairly rare.  This is not, as many have pointed out, because rape is rare: Marcy Bloom, of GIRE, notes that in 2009 alone, 881 women in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo “became pregnant as a result of rape.”

After some deliberation, this young Mexican girl and her family have decided to continue the pregnancy and keep the child.  Still, anti-choice activists in the country have used the case as an opportunity to attack pro-choice groups like GIRE, arguing that the organization attempted to pressure the girl to get an abortion.  In fact, women who become pregnant as a result of rape in Mexico are much more likely to be pressured by anti-choice elements to give up their legal right to abortion (see the RH article for a number of examples).

In case you are tempted to believe that legal abortion is so difficult to secure in Latin America because of the restrictions surrounding the procedure, think again: this week, abortion access suffered a major blow in the U.S. state of Oklahoma, where Roe v. Wade ostensibly extended abortion rights to women over 30 years ago.  Thanks to the Oklahoma Legislature, women seeking abortion in that state will now have to view ultrasound images and “listen to a detailed description of the fetus.”  Like the 24-hour wait law and other obstacles to abortion access, the Oklahoma measures display the profoundly condescending notion that unless forced, women will not think deeply about their decisions to have an abortion.  That, unless the state imposes its own definitions of “thoughtfulness” and “consideration” onto women’s abortion decisions, then women will approach these decisions with frivolity and disdain.

The photographs in today’s posting were provided by a guest photographer.

When women were granted the vote, we were supposedly recognized by the state as “adults” capable of making independent decisions and of running for office.  Restrictions to abortion access, however, return women to the realm of childhood, where we are deemed wards of the state who cannot be trusted with decisions impacting our own bodies and reproductive lives.  These three stories reveal a painful truth–that we cannot trust the law.  Laws alone will not protect us.  Access to legal abortion–and “permission” to act as capable adults–are still a long way off.