By Las Comadres Púrpuras (The Purple Comadres)
This article first appeared in Spanish in December 17, 2018, in Revista Amazonas, a Latin-American and Spanish, feminist and anti-capitalist magazine. Cover image also by Las Comadres Púrpuras.
Induced abortion, or as it is also known, the voluntary interruption of unplanned, unwanted or unexpected pregnancy, is the subject of polemics that evoke sharp differences of opinion and confrontations over ethics, religion and privacy. A spontaneous abortion, on the other hand, does not elicit observations of a social nature or moral judgments.
The will-full interruption of pregnancies is a frequently occurring fact. From the earliest times, women have sought to voluntarily interrupt pregnancies, to avoid continuing to an unwanted birth. Abortion tends to happen as a last resort, when women involuntarily become pregnant in spite of the use of contraceptive devices. As we know, contraceptive methods are not 100% effective, be they natural, hormonal or of a barrier-type. There is always a risk of pregnancy for the woman. Furthermore, the least fortunate women, those without economic resources, are those facing the greatest risk of unwanted pregnancy. Moreover, the lack of formal education and easy access to information on sexual and reproductive health increases this risk.
In Venezuela, abortion remains illegal. In fact, our Penal Code classifies abortion as a crime; it is allowed only when the woman is at risk of dying. Such a restriction, instead of diminishing the number of abortions, increases them. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), only 1 out of 4 abortions are safely performed in countries that exclusively permit the procedure when there is risk of death or physical harm. In other words, the legal restrictions do not diminish the frequency of illegal abortions. Criminalization does not reduce the practice.
Unsafe abortions are performed by people with little or no qualifications; many of them require the consumption of toxic concoctions or the introduction of sharp objects in the vagina, all of which put the woman’s health at risk. If the abortion is not successfully completed, the presence of remnants of the embryo in the womb can provoke hemorrhages, and cervical and uterine infections, which can ultimately lead to infertility and death. However, not all women are exposed to unsafe abortions. Those who have the economic means can access abortions in private clinics with safe sanitary conditions and qualified health personnel, or they have access to mifepristone or misoprostol pills; while the impoverished are victims of illegality. Impoverished women are those whose health is at risk, who die as a result of poorly-performed abortions. Thus, unsafe abortions are a public health concern.
According to the Venezuelan feminist Teresa Sosa, the fight for the decriminalization of abortion in Venezuela began in the ’80s, with the publication of the book In Defense of Abortion in Venezuela (1979) by the Venezuelan biologist, sociologist and feminist writer Giovanna Machado. For Sosa, this book caught the attention of media in the country, promoted debates in different spaces, and became a pioneer text of our struggle in Latin America.
It is important to highlight that the motivation behind Machado’s research and writing of this work was the death of a woman in 1976: a woman as any other, who had decided to choose the right time to become a mother, and who sought an abortion to interrupt a pregnancy, who risked her life for an unsafe and clandestine abortion, her body being found days later on the side of a road.
In 1981, the Venezuelan Medical Federation (FMV) presented ‘Abortion in Venezuela’ as a central topic to an assembly considering amendments to the Law on the Exercise of Medicine. The presentation argued that abortion should be seen as a public health issue, in recognition that in countries with laws allowing the practice, the frequency of complications resulting from abortions had been significantly reduced.
Through the FMV, medical professionals approved of the practice of abortion under the following circumstances: out of medical concerns for the mother, for reasons of fetal malformation, or in cases of pregnancy resulting from sexual violence. It also advised the National Congress – today the National Assembly – to modify standing legislation to allow for abortions under such circumstances. But it rejected removing further restrictions on abortion, authorizing practitioners to interrupt pregnancies only when there was evidence of therapeutic need, in cases of rape, or in the presence of physical and developmental conditions that threatened the life of the fetus.
The FMV also argued that such procedures should only be carried out at both parents’ request, granting the woman the sole right to do so only in the absence of a lawful union or a recognized father, although allowing for a legal representative of the woman to make the request with her express and written consent. Specialized doctors would be the only ones to certify such requests, which were to be processed by a designated Special Commission. For this purpose, the FMV called for the creation of a commission to be charged with requesting the National Congress to review the Penal Code, and thus carry out the needed reforms as concerns abortion.
At the time, Congress awaited a reform of the Law on the Exercise of Medicine. Under the media’s spotlight, Venezuelan women academics stood out in their participation in the FMV’s assembly. But an offensive by the Catholic Church hit back, pushing Congress to reject the FMV’s proposal. The power of the Catholic Church over the national government’s decisions, especially in regards women’s right to choose for themselves, is well known.
The FMV’s effort to decriminalize certain forms of abortion constituted an important milestone for Venezuela. However, we must highlight the emphasis it gave to abortion as a public health matter, as in reality, this is only one facet of the problem. This approach gives medical professionals a central role in making decisions on abortions, and in the issue of who has the right to decide, placing women in a position of tutelage without the possibility and freedom of making decisions for themselves.
In 1986, a project was drafted to reform the Penal Code, to decriminalize abortion in cases of sexual assault. This project was analyzed and argued for by Dr. Sonia Sgambatti in her thesis work to become a professor of Legal Medicine in the medical school of the Central University of Venezuela. However, the Penal Code was not reformed.
In the ’90s, Venezuela entered a period of political and economic instability: an IMF-sponsored austerity package provoked the 1989 popular revolt known as the “Caracazo”, Hugo Chavez led an attempted coup d’état in 1992, President Carlos Andres Perez was impeached and removed from office, and Ramon J. Velasquez assumed the presidency in a provisional role. These events took the spotlight away from the situation of women in our country.
In 1998, after Hugo Chavez won the presidential elections, he launched the initiative for a constitutional reform process, and a National Constituent Assembly was convoked for 1999. This was an unprecedented historical moment, opening up participation for diverse sectors of civil society: alongside political parties, women’s organizations drafted a new constitutional charter with an optimistic view for the future.
The participation of the women’s movement and the struggle for sexual and reproductive rights grabbed attention during the drafting of the new constitution. The goals of legal recognition for and conceptualization of sexual and reproductive rights as human rights were pursued; public debates, in particular in regards the positions of the RedPob, were opened up. The RedPob (the Network of Sustainable Population and Development) was founded with the mission of promoting the fulfillment in Venezuela of the agreements achieved and signed in the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development. The RedPob was a coalition of 12 NGOs working in areas of sexual and reproductive health in the country. The RedPob participated in the drafting of laws, most notably working on the Law on Violence Against Woman and the Family of 1998, and the inclusion of articles regarding sexual and reproductive rights in the Organic Law of Protection of Children and Adolescents (1998). The RedPob’s main objective lay in the non-inclusion of the “right to life” from conception, which left the door open to further debate in the future. Even though the decriminalization of abortion was not a major topic in the process of drafting the new constitution, it was necessary to guarantee a basic flexibility, to allow space for clearer legislation decriminalizing abortion in the future.
During that moment, Assembly members recognized the existence of two agendas: the political one, and that of a social movement that sought to enshrine sexual and reproductive rights as human rights. The way forward consisted in achieving consensus through a draft that would not limit feminist advances in these struggles.
Among the achievements of this intervention were: 1) the non-inclusion of the “right to life” from conception; 2) the enshrinement of the right of couples to freely and responsibly decide the number of children they wished to conceive, and to access the information and means necessary for this purpose; 3) significant advances in building mechanisms towards guaranteeing the protection, enjoyment and exercise of human rights by the citizenry; 4) freedom of religion and worship, with an emphasis on forbidding the evasion or breaking of laws by invoking religious beliefs or disciplines, or to impede other citizens’ exercise of their rights.
Subsequently, with the installation of the “Fifth” Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, it became necessary to review the remaining legal instruments, to adjust them to the new Constitution’s requirements. Thus, there arose new initiatives to modify the Penal Code. This time, the Supreme Court of Justice’s Board of Direction announced a Draft Project for a Penal Code in 2004, following extensive work performed by 15 jurists over a two-year period. It is important to note that even though this Draft Project took up important advances towards the decriminalization of abortion, it was written behind closed doors, without consulting civil society or the women’s movement.
Feminist collectives in the country began to take important steps towards promoting the decriminalization of abortion, in 2007, in the framework of the Constitutional Reform promoted by President Chavez, and in 2010, with new initiatives to reform the Penal Code. However, in clear contradiction to the socialist and leftist claims of the Bolivarian revolution, the proposals for the reform of the Penal Code were never approved.
In 2017, representatives from the “The Feminist Spider” network of collectives, the Network for Information for Safe Abortion, and the Left Cultural Front delivered a document to the National Constituent Assembly to promote a wide debate aimed at decriminalizing abortion. They are still awaiting an answer.
At present, in the midst of a profound economic, political and social crisis, and with a new constitution being drafted (albeit this time around without the participation of a plurality of social groups, political parties or feminist collectives), as Venezuelan women we face harsh conditions and enormous challenges. Maternal mortality has risen by 67% due to the precarious state of the public health centers, the impossible access to medicine, and malnutrition due to difficult access to food, among other factors.
As part of this crisis, women also face a dearth of contraceptive devices, with the few available being prohibitively expensive. If we add onto this the absence of an educational policy on sexual and reproductive rights for school curriculums, we can conclude that the conditions are ripe for unwanted and unplanned pregnancies. In fact, Venezuela holds the second highest numbers in the region for adolescent pregnancies.
Abortion being illegal, mifepristone and misoprostol are also illegal. This results in high black-market prices: each pill can be extremely expensive, and as many as 12 are needed to interrupt a pregnancy before the 12th week – according to WHO protocols – so that most women cannot acquire them. Illegality encourages contraband, the clandestine sale and purchase of pills through unknown persons, which gives rise to scams, with women being sold aspirin instead of misoprostol. This only adds anguish and stress to women choosing to interrupt a pregnancy.
Difficult times always require action to
overcome them. At the least, we cannot abandon the struggle for women’s right
to decide over our own bodies. Thus, in March of 2018, commemorating International
Women’s Day, as the autonomous and decolonized Venezuelan feminist Collective
“The Purple Comadres”, we published the book Hanger, Cinnamon and Blood: We
Came to Talk of Abortion. This
book gathers the testimonies of ten women who decided to interrupt their
pregnancies, and another three that express the experiences of women who
accompanied others to do so. These voices are nothing less than reflections on
the difficult physical, psychic and spiritual experience through which any
woman who decides to abort has to go through, as well as of the violence to
which she is subjected by medical doctors and nurses in public hospitals if she
arrives as a result of an attempted abortion. However, these cases also reflect
female empowerment, the right to choose, the freedom to decide over our own
lives despite any sanction, the freedom to decide whether or not we want to be
mothers, how to be so, and how many children to have. The struggle for the
right to choose is harsh, and we will not rest until we achieve it.