Roger’s note: El Salvador has what may be the most repressive abortion laws in the Western world. There are cases of young women jailed for years because of a miscarriage. It is barbaric. And no one is more responsible for such barbarism than the Catholic Church. When I read that abortion is a sin, that there are campaigns to totally eradicate abortion in the struggle for good over evil, it takes me back to the Dark Ages. Such attitudes and laws reflect inhuman religious ideology in the service of patriarchy. It has been said jokingly, but I believe it literally, if men could have babies then abortion would be a sacrament.
The movement to decriminalize abortion in El Salvador described in the article below, if successful, would only eliminate the most Draconian elements of the anti-abortion legislation (abortion in the case of rape, for example); but there still would be a long way to go to reach the ideal of abortion being solely a matter between a woman and her physician.
“Is it the will of a compassionate God to mandate that young girls who have been raped carry to term resulting pregnancies?” asked theologian María Lopez Vigil at a talk organized by advocates.
In 1997, the legislature in El Salvador was considering a vote to criminalize abortion under all circumstances. Morena Herrera, a feminist activist, “was facing the legislature, alone, trying to defend and justify why they should not change the law,” recalled Mariana Moisa, communications director at the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto.
“They were transmitting live, and they shut off her microphone,” Moisa recalled.
The Salvadoran Legislative Assembly went on to ban abortion in all circumstances. In addition to making abortion illegal no matter what, this unjust law has been misapplied in cases of obstetric emergencies or miscarriages—leading to the imprisonment of dozens of women in the country because of pregnancy complications. Now, however, the legislature is considering a bill from Vice President of the Legislative Assembly Lorena Peña that would decriminalize abortion in cases of rape or human trafficking, fetal non-viability, or to preserve the pregnant person’s health or life. It would also legalize abortion when the pregnancy results from rape or statutory rape of a minor, with the consent of the minor’s parent or guardian. Although it would not necessarily shield women from prosecution when the law is misapplied, it effectively returns the law to its pre-1997 state.
On February 27, the legislature’s Committee on Legislation and Constitutional Points, where the bill is being heard, convened a first-ever public hearing on abortion in response to the unexpected number of requests they received to present testimony. Twelve out of the seventeen organizations and individuals who testified spoke in support of decriminalization, including nationally and internationally recognized professionals in public health and law, representatives from two progressive Protestant churches, and a variety of activists.
Marcela Zamora, a well-known Salvadoran filmmaker, shared her recently published essay, “I Aborted,” a rare public statement in El Salvador. She recounted how more than ten years earlier, while living in a country that allowed abortion, she experienced a pregnancy with complications that threatened her life. Although she was able to obtain an abortion, she questioned what would have happened to her if she had been in El Salvador at that time.
Moisa said she was struck by the contrast with the tenor of the hearing in 1997. “This time, in 2017, they invited us to the legislature, and our voices were heard. They made clear that the discussion would be based on scientific and legal information. Morena was there again, [this time] with a whole panorama of diverse voices who stood up alongside her to express their support for a possible reform,” she remembered.
This change didn’t come out of nowhere. Activists on the ground have been working for two decades to engage allies and elected officials on this issue—and in the last few months, that momentum has ramped up on a number of fronts.
Abortion as a Health Issue
Those speaking out in favor of the bill are, for the most part, concentrating on the exceptions to the ban it enshrines into law.
At a January forum organized by the Alliance for the Life and Health of Women—a coalition in which the Agrupación is a key player—members of the medical profession provided the medical and scientific justifications for the proposed change to the law.
Gynecologist Guillermo Ortiz, currently a senior adviser for Ipas and formerly chief of obstetrics at the Women’s Hospital in El Salvador, said that physicians who support the proposal for reform “are in favor of saving lives. But there are conditions that make [abortion] necessary, and we are talking about those situations so that exceptions can exist within the law.”
As part of that convening of medical experts, seven nationally and internationally recognized OB-GYNs signed off on a memo to the Committee on Legislation and Constitutional Points. The memo, viewed by Rewire, says the society must “generate legal instruments that guarantee protection for [patients’] lives,” in at least the four cases defined in the proposed reform.
The memo cited the Ethics Committee of the International Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetricians: “There exists a broad consensus … that abortion is ethically justifiable when it is carried out for medical reasons to protect the life and health” of the pregnant person.
“It is fundamental to remember that the global experience shows that the frequency of abortion does not depend on legislation and that the rates of abortion do not increase with more liberal legislation,” the memo continued. “To the contrary, they can diminish, if at the same time other measures are adopted,” such as information and free access to highly effective contraception.
In a February 21 symposium on health and bioethics organized by the ministry, El Salvador Minister of Health Dr. Violeta Menjivar responded, “As the Ministry of Health, we consider it appropriate that the legislature and society together participate in a reflection and deliberation on the harm the absolute prohibition on abortion causes to the health of Salvadoran women.”
She supported the move to reform the law, noting that the United Nations had made a request in January 2015 that El Salvador repeal its broad criminalization of abortion under all circumstances.
At the February 27 hearing, Sofia Villalta, a nationally recognized gynecologist with more than 40 years of professional experience, testified on the causes of unwanted pregnancies and emphasized the underlying role of the “subordination of women to masculine power.” She cited a study within the Salvadoran society of gynecologists which showed that 80 percent of them want to return to the prior legislation allowing abortion.
The Consequences of Criminalization
At the February 21 forum organized by the Ministry of Health, Dr. Virginia Rodriguez of the National Committee on Bioethics in El Salvador posed the question, “If a woman has rights from conception, at what point does she lose her rights? When do the rights of the fetus in development take priority over her rights to life?”
Rodriguez was referencing a February 15 decision from the El Salvador Supreme Court, when it ruled on a 2007 case involving conflicting laws over when life begins and when the State must protect that life.
Although the Court agreed that the the El Salvador Constitution declares life as beginning at “conception,” it said “it is necessary to weigh each case.” It also stated that the idea of fetal rights does not “claim a duty of absolute and unconditional protection of life in gestation.”
Alberto Romero of the Agrupación Ciudadana and the Movement for Secular Culture wrote in a booklet published by the Salvadoran Foundation for the Study of the Application of Law, FESPAD, that the Court’s decision “permits a resolution of the vacuum that exists in the current legislation, which does not establish legal mechanisms to resolve the collision of rights that takes place between the [fetus] and the woman who is pregnant.”
On the day of the hearing, the nine-member National Committee on Bioethics in El Salvador—which also includes Morena Herrera and Margarita Rivas of the Agrupación—published a paid ad in La Prensa Gráfica, noting the ways in which existing law infringes on the rights of pregnant people and women in general.
The law has also, the committee said, generated legal conflicts whereby physicians’ responsibilities to protect doctor-patient confidentiality conflict with their mandates under the anti-abortion laws. Overall, the ad said, the broad criminalization of abortion violates the rights of pregnant people by treating their constitutional rights as equal to or subordinate to those of the fetus.
“The Alliance knew it was important to address religious concerns in a society as deeply religious as El Salvador, where almost 99 percent of the population professes a belief in God and about 91 percent belong to a religion,” said Romero, who researches secularism and social issues in El Salvador.
“For many people, both legislators and citizens in general, it’s difficult to reconcile [many religions’] mandate against abortion with the rational arguments for permitting it. It’s important to present a variety of interpretations that do not condemn and criminalize abortion,” he said.
Advocates noted that different religions take varied stances on abortion. “The Anglican Church here in El Salvador talks about abortion not being a theological issue, but a pastoral one of accompaniment of women,” said Alejandra Burgos, a member of the Agrupación and a progressive feminist theologian.
Indeed, during the February 27 hearing, Martin Barahona of the Anglican Church in El Salvador explained that “in this case the Anglican bishops consider that the only people who have the right to decide are the women who are pregnant.”
“Even Pope Francis, who maintains that abortion is a sin, mandates priests to have compassion and accompany women,” Burgos pointed out.
“It’s necessary in this society to provide alternatives to people who are living with these contradictions; to show that a religious believer can also support the right [to] interrupt a pregnancy,” she concluded.
In one talk, María Lopez Vigil, a Cuban-Nicaraguan theologian, author, and editor of the progressive Nicaraguan magazine Envio, proposed looking at abortion in a broader perspective, considering the realities of the country.
“Consider the commandment ‘do not kill’ with situational ethics. There is nothing more abortive than poverty,” she said.
In arguing for a compassionate, merciful view of God, she asked the audience of more than 300—many of whom had not attended Alliance events in the past—if it was “the will of a compassionate God that women suffer and die for ‘not having enough faith’ when they experience obstetric emergencies? Is it the will of a compassionate God to mandate that young girls who have been raped carry to term resulting pregnancies?”
She challenged structural injustices and spoke of “abortive societies,” in which countries obligate pregnant girls and adolescents to give birth, but after the birth do nothing to help them support and raise their children. That, she said, is a “structural sin.”
Responses to the campaign for decriminalization are diverse.
After the various hearings and forums, Legislative Representative Juan Valiente of the right-wing ARENA party spoke on a TV talk show supporting debate on the reform, going against his party’s stance.
In addition, he tweeted, “I’m against abortion, but I recognize that there is a collision of rights and it’s important to investigate and debate. I’m not afraid.” And to another constituent opposed to decriminalization, he posted, “I prefer to lose your vote than my conscience.”
Even with these sea changes in some public opinions and attitudes, there is still strong religious opposition.
A group of Catholic churches initiated “40 days of prayer” leading up to Easter Sunday with the goal of “ending abortion in the world and in the country” in a war “between good and bad.” Regarding the Ministry of Health position, prayer campaign leader Karla de Lacayo told La Prensa Gráfica, “it’s a lie” that women’s lives are at risk.
“With [medical] advances now, there is no way the woman is going to die. And, if it’s true, if the child dies in the process, then that’s what God wanted,” de Lacayo said.
In the legislature itself, there remains the fact that supporters of the reform must form coalitions in order to get the majority vote necessary to first pass the measure out of committee, and then win a majority of votes in the full body. Neither the right-wing ARENA party nor the left-leaning FMLN has a numerical majority in the committee or the full legislature.
Supporters hope for a positive resolution in the next few weeks, before the next election cycle gets underway. At that point, they say, chances of any substantive vote on any matter disappear.
As Sara Garcia, coordinator for the Agrupación, told Rewire, “This is a historic moment. International organizations such as the UN are speaking out. More and more social movements are making pronouncements. Professional medical organizations and the universities declare their support.”
“The government can’t keep ignoring the realities of women in this country,” she said.
Roger’s note: The “radical” pope drew a crowd of a million in Guayaquil, that is nearly 10% of Ecuador’s population. Following this article on the persecution of women in El Salvador I have posted a critique of the hypocritical plea to end poverty at the same time as defending the Church’s misogynist ideology. My take on the RC Church, this anonymous quote: “if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
For Immediate Release
July 6, 2015
Washington DC – Four activists will stand trial on July 7, 2015 at 9:30 am in front of Judge Susan Holmes-Winfield (Case# 2015CMD005708) on the charge of unlawful entry, which carries a maximum sentence of 6 months in prison. The four were arrested on April 24, 2015 at the Embassy of El Salvador where they staged a sit-in to call attention to a group of Salvadoran women currently serving extreme 30-year prison sentences for having had miscarriages. Protesters included Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of Latin America solidarity organization School of the Americas Watch; Ed Kinane, of Syracuse, NY, retired educator and nonviolent peace activist; John Honeck, a counselor and activist from Hamlin, NY; and Paki Wieland, of Northampton, MA, longtime peace and justice activist and member of the Raging Grannies. The group delivered a letter to the embassy to express their solidarity and to seek the release of the 17 women. Julienne Oldfield of Syracuse, NY, and Palma Ryan of Cliff Island, ME, also participated in the sit-in.
“The 17,” as they are now known in the global movement advocating their release, are 17 women in El Salvador serving decades in prison for having had miscarriages. A country with deeply conservative abortion laws, El Salvador has convicted these 17 and charged as many as five more. According to Amnesty International, the charges are for aggravated homicide and receiving illegal abortions, though there is little to no evidence as to the causes of their miscarriages. Cristina Quintanilla, sentenced to 30 years after she had a miscarriage, was released in 2014 by a court, which commuted her sentence to three years, amounting to time served. Carmen Guadalupe Vásquez Aldana made international headlines earlier this year as one of the 17 to be released. (El Salvador and ‘Las 17’, New York Times).
Mirian, Martiza, Marina, Salvadora, Ena,Teodora, Guadalupe, Mariana, Mirna, Cinthia, Verónica, Alba, Johana, Evelyn, Teresa, and María make up the remainder of The 17. Many are mothers of young children, and all have many more years to serve under their current sentences.
“This is a grave injustice. Where there is injustice, silence is complicity,” said Father Roy Bourgeois. “For that reason, we were at the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington, DC, to express our solidarity with these women.” The group invited the embassy staff to join the call for the release of the 15 women who remain incarcerated.
The extreme abortion laws in El Salvador were passed under the ultra-right wing Arena government in 1997. Embassy staff were concerned about the issues raised and informed protesters that the Supreme Court has the authority to review these cases.
Some of the protesters were part of a recent US Human Rights Delegation to El Salvador that visited five of the women in prison who are serving 30-year sentences for having a miscarriage. They have 22 more years to go before they are released.
Pope Francis this week embarked on a seven-day “homecoming” tour of Latin America in his unstoppable quest to defend the planet and the poor.
The continent—the most unequal region in the world, and the Argentine pontiff’s home turf—will likely provide fertile ground for more of his legendary sermons on poverty and inequality. After addressing a crowd of a million in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on Monday, Francis is scheduled to attend a meeting of grass-roots political activists and visit one of the continent’s largest prisons, in Bolivia, as well as a slum and a children’s hospital in Paraguay.
While he advocates for South America’s impoverished and disenfranchised, its prisoners, its indigenous peoples and its children, one group is unlikely to feature in Francis’ apparently radical agenda: its women.
Despite his efforts to champion his constituency—the world’s poor, of which the vast majority are women—the pope tends to overlook the feminized nature of poverty and inequality.
Like the rest of the world -and the Vatican – Latin America is built on gender inequality. Important progress has been made in the region over recent decades, and the percentage of its overall population living in poverty had decreased significantly. But the feminization of poverty (an increase in the levels of poverty among women or female-headed households relative to the levels of men or male-headed households) increased from 109 percent in 1994 to almost 117 percent in 2013, according to the United Nations.
Women’s labor participation in the region remains more than a quarter less than that of men, at 52.9 percent, compared with 79.6 percent, as recorded in 2010 statistics. And while the wage gap has shrunk, women still earn a staggering 68 percent less than their male colleagues. South American women are also twice as likely as men to be unpaid workers.
As a public figure who frequently invokes “dignity” in appealing to the hearts and minds of his followers, the Catholic leader would do well to address the results of a recent poll in which Latin Americans were found to be the least likely in the world in 2012 and 2013 to describe women in their countries as treated with respect and dignity. A median of 35 percent of adults across 22 Latin American countries said their women are treated this way—about half the percentages in any other region of the world.
Of the little research that exists, the statistics on violence against women in Latin America are gruesome. A recent U.N. report published in the Economist found that a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. It states that in Colombia, “attacks in which acid is thrown at women’s faces, disfiguring them, nearly quadrupled between 2011 and 2012.” Moreover, of the 25 countries in the world that are high or very high in the U.N.’s ranking for femicides (killings of women that seem to be related to their sex), more than half are in the region.
Research shows that when women have access to contraception and are educated to make responsible choices, their income, employment and education levels rise, as do their children’s. As women’s choices expand, they have fewer unassisted labors and backstreet abortions, meaning maternal mortality is reduced, and, depending on the type of contraception used, life-limiting sexually transmitted diseases are contained.
But because the Vatican considers women second-class citizens, it goes without saying that the pope will not mention abortion or contraception during his South American tour.
Figures show that of the 4.4 million abortions performed in Latin America in 2008, 95 percent were unsafe, and about 1 million women are hospitalized annually for treatment of complications from such procedures. In this context, it should be noted that the pope has described the abortion-rights movement as a “culture of death” and has opposed Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s efforts to distribute free contraceptives.
Francis has shown himself capable of influencing policy (he was most recently hailed as instrumental in restoring diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba), but as Jemima Thackray writes in The Telegraph, “the Catholic Church’s growth is coming from non-European countries where the so-called ‘liberal’ issues of sexual equality are considered less important.”
As much as he has advocated “rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world,” Francis has repeatedly embraced the traditional Catholic view that a woman’s role is in the home. Extolling the role of women specifically as mothers by declaring “the presence of women in a domestic setting” as crucial to “the very transmission of the faith,” Francis has said, “I think, for example, of the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood.” Although women may have lives outside the home, Francis has urged us not to “forget the irreplaceable role of the woman in a family.”
Given the pope’s outspoken views, we’ve been hoping he’d get around to addressing gender inequality eventually. But lest we forget, the Vatican is—and always will be—a patriarchal institution based on sexual hierarchy. Asked on two occasions about the possibility of admitting women to the ranks of the clergy, Francis has given a firm no. “That door,” he said in 2013, “is closed.” As Thackray explains, “this is not about having a Western liberal agenda for equality for its own sake, but about acknowledging that in allowing women into positions of influence in the church, this would raise their general status, reducing their vulnerability and poverty. Perhaps,” she continues, “it would also help shake up some of the closed male-dominated systems which have caused some of the other worst abuses by the Catholic Church.”
It would be no violation of doctrine to recognize women as equally and intrinsically valuable, regardless of their familial role or fertility. Until the pope’s vision of equality includes this, it’s incomplete.
A version of this article originally appeared in Truthdig.
Roísín Davis, originally from Northern Ireland, is a journalist with a background in social research and community work. She is an assistant editor at Truthdig. She now lives in Los Angeles.
Roger’s note: god forbid anyone should promote a rivalry between different groups of the oppressed; that is tantamount to divide and conquer, the oldest political trick in the books, one that predated Machiavelli by centuries. Nevertheless, as this article points out, there is a complexity about the different dimensions of struggles for justice. Homophobia, racism and sexism are pernicious; and, as the saying goes, no one is free until we are all free. Nevertheless, homophobia, racism and sexism seem to have taken root to different degrees in North American society. An example that has interested me relates to Vietnam War opposition; that is, the difference in attitude towards celebrity opponents Jane Fonda and Muhammad Ali. The latter has risen to iconic hero status, whereas Hanoi Jane remains a pariah to many. Does this mean that misogyny is deeper than racism in our society? I don’t think that is exactly true, although to some extent it seems that the liberation of fifty percent of the population poses more of a threat than any particular race. This is a raw observation on my part, not to be taken too seriously I hope; and this article goes into a more rigorous analysis in the treatment of gay and women’s rights.
The media present marriage equality and reproductive rights as ‘culture war’ issues, as if they somehow went together,” writes Pollitt. “But perhaps they’re not as similar as we think.” (Image credit: Getty)
Why are reproductive rights losing while gay rights are winning? Indiana’s attempt to enshrine opposition to gay marriage under the guise of religious freedom provoked an immediate nationwide backlash. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has allowed religious employers to refuse insurance coverage for birth control—not abortion, birth control—to female employees; new laws are forcing abortion clinics to close; and absurd, even medically dangerous restrictions are heaping up in state after state. Except when the media highlight a particularly crazy claim by a Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock, where’s the national outrage? Most Americans are pro-choice, more or less; only a small minority want to see abortion banned. When you consider, moreover, that one in three women will have had at least one abortion by the time she reaches menopause, and most of those women had parents, partners, friends—someone—who helped them obtain it, the sluggish response to the onslaught of restrictive laws must include many people who have themselves benefited from safe and legal abortion.
The media present marriage equality and reproductive rights as “culture war” issues, as if they somehow went together. But perhaps they’re not as similar as we think. Some distinctions:
§ Marriage equality is about love, romance, commitment, settling down, starting a family. People love love! But marriage equality is also about tying love to family values, expanding a conservative institution that has already lost most of its coercive social power and become optional for millions. (Marriage equality thus follows Pollitt’s law: Outsiders get access when something becomes less valued, which is why women can be art historians and African-Americans win poetry prizes.) Far from posing a threat to marriage, as religious opponents claim, permitting gays to marry gives the institution a much-needed update, even as it presents LGBT people as no threat to the status quo: Instead of promiscuous child molesters and lonely gym teachers, gays and lesbians are your neighbors who buy Pottery Barn furniture and like to barbecue.
Reproductive rights, by contrast, is about sex—sexual freedom, the opposite of marriage—in all its messy, feckless glory. It replaces the image of women as chaste, self-sacrificing mothers dependent on men with that of women as independent, sexual, and maybe not so self-sacrificing. It doesn’t matter that contraception is indispensable to modern life, that abortion antedates the sexual revolution by thousands of years, that plenty of women who have abortions are married, or that most (60 percent) who have abortions are already mothers. Birth control and abortion allow women—and, to a lesser extent, men—to have sex without punishment, a.k.a. responsibility. And our puritanical culture replies: You should pay for that pleasure, you slut.
§ Same-sex marriage is something men want. Lesbian couples account for the majority of same-sex marriages, but even the vernacular “gay marriage” types it as a male concern. That makes it of interest to everyone, because everything male is of general interest. Though many of the groundbreaking activists and lawyers who have fought for same-sex marriage are lesbians, gay men have a great deal of social and economic power, and they have used it, brilliantly, to mainstream the cause.
Reproductive rights are inescapably about women. Pervasive misogyny means not only that those rights are stigmatized—along with the women who exercise them—but that men don’t see them as all that important, while women have limited social power to promote them. And that power is easily endangered by too close an identification with all but the most anodyne version of feminism. There are no female CEOs pouring millions into reproductive rights or threatening to relocate their businesses when a state guts access to abortion. And with few exceptions, A-list celebs steer clear.
§ Marriage equality has cross-class appeal: Anyone can have an LGBT child, and parents across the political spectrum naturally want their kids to have the same opportunities other children have. Any woman might find herself needing an abortion, too, but she may not realize that. Improvements in birth control mean that prosperous, educated women with private doctors can control their fertility pretty well—certainly better than women who rely on public clinics—and if they need an abortion, they can get one. It’s low-income women who suffer the most from abortion restrictions—and since when have their issues been at the top of the middle and upper classes’ to-do list?
§ Marriage equality costs society nothing and takes no power away from anyone. No one has been able to argue persuasively that your gay marriage hurts my straight marriage. But reproductive rights come with a price tag: Government funding is inevitably involved. (“If you want to have a party, have a party, but don’t ask me to pay for it,” said one New Hampshire lawmaker as he tried to cut funding for contraception.) Also, contraception and abortion give power to women and take it from others: parents, employers, clergy, and men.
§In marriage equality, there is no loser. But many, including some who call themselves pro-choice, feel that abortion creates a loser: the embryo or fetus. You have to value women a lot to side with the pregnant woman, with all her inevitable complexities and flaws, over the pure potentiality of the future baby.
§ Marriage equality is a wonderful thing, an important civil right that brings dignity to a previously excluded group. Over time, it may subtly affect the gender conventions of straight marriage, but it won’t fundamentally alter our social and economic arrangements. Reproductive rights, though, are inescapably connected to the larger project of feminism, which has already destabilized every area of life, from the bedroom to the boardroom. What might women demand, what might they accomplish, how might they choose to live, if every woman had children only when and if she wanted them? “Culture war” doesn’t begin to describe it.
Roger’s note: some years ago I attended an event designed to discuss the issue of choice with young people who were born after the Roe v. Wade decision. A retired physician, a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, spoke of his “conversion” to pro life while at the same time not abandoning his faith. As a young Resident at LA County Hospital he worked on a ward with hundreds of beds for women with septic infections, 99% a result of botched back alley abortions. That ward disappeared entirely once therapeutic abortion was decriminalized. He said that from time to time nowadays he is called in to consult on a rare case of septic infection because today’s medical students and physicians almost never see them. That will soon change in Texas and elsewhere in the United States. Thanks to the misogynist Catholic Church hierarchy and the right to death bigots and their scumbag allies in state governments.
Posted: 04/03/2014 10:00 pm EDT Updated: 04/04/2014 10:59 am EDT
In 1969, when abortion was completely illegal in Texas except to save a woman’s life, Karen Hulsey became pregnant.
She was 20 years old and living in Dallas at the time, and the diaphragm she was using for birth control had failed her. Her boyfriend, she discovered, was married, and refused to help raise or pay for a child.
“It was just at a time in my life where I knew I couldn’t take care of a child, and he wanted no responsibility,” Hulsey recalled in an interview with The Huffington Post.
Instead, the man offered to pay for her to travel to Mexico, where he knew of a clandestine abortion provider. She wrestled with the decision and was three months pregnant by the time she agreed to go.
“I was not only very afraid of the ramifications with God, but very ashamed and embarrassed,” said Hulsey, who was raised Catholic. “I struggled with the decision for a long time.”
Hulsey left Dallas at midnight on a chartered plane, with no idea where she was going, and landed in a field south of the border in the middle of the night. A woman Hulsey had never met before was waiting for her when she stepped off the aircraft.
“I was scared to death,” Hulsey said. “Of course, he did not go with me — I went alone,” she said of her boyfriend at the time. “That was the stipulation.”
From there, things only got worse.
“A car came and picked us up and took us to what was considered a clinic in a little bitty building with dirt floors,” Hulsey recalled. “Even at that age, I knew this was not a good thing. I had worked as a nurse’s aide at that point in my life, and I knew about sterilization and everything else, so this just mounted my anxiety and fears.”
Hulsey said the doctor put her feet in stirrups and performed a “very rough,” painful gynecological exam. He then sedated her for the abortion procedure.
When Hulsey began to wake up, she realized that the doctor was raping her.
“I was of course very drowsy, and the doctor was on top of me having sex with me,” she recalled. “I had just barely opened my eyes, and he was all involved in what he was doing, and I immediately closed my eyes, because I knew if I acted like I knew what was going on I’d probably get killed, never to be seen or heard of again.”
After the man finished assaulting her, Hulsey said she cautiously opened her eyes.
“I went ahead after a little bit of time and acted like I was coming out from under the anesthetic, and he told me I’d had a little boy,” Hulsey said, choking back tears. “I was given a Kotex and taken back to Texas with no further care.”
Hulsey discovered upon returning to Texas that she had not completely expelled the placenta — a possible complication of surgical abortion. She was rushed to the emergency room, hemorrhaging from the botched procedure.
Years down the road, when she was ready to have children, she had three miscarriages due to the damage the illegal abortion provider had caused to her cervix. She underwent surgery to make it possible for her to hold a baby inside her body, and even then, her daughter was born two months premature and weighed less than three pounds.
“I thought that I had sinned and was being punished for having gone to Mexico and done that, and that’s why I had a baby that was so sick,” said Hulsey. “I think that’s baloney now, and that’s why I’m willing to talk about it.”
Four years after Hulsey’s ordeal, Texas became the original battleground state in the fight for legal and safe abortion. The 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade arose out of a challenge to the Texas law that criminalized the procedure except to save a woman’s life. Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade defended the abortion ban against a 21-year-old pregnant woman using the pseudonym “Jane Roe.” Roe had tried to obtain an illegal abortion near Dallas, where she lived at at the time, but found that authorities had already raided and shut down the clandestine providers nearby.
The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that states must make abortion legal at least until the fetus is viable, around 22 to 24 weeks into pregnancy. The Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, estimates that before Roe, as many as 1.2 million women a year in the U.S. resorted to primitive, self-induced abortions or sought out illegal, amateur providers. Thousands of women ended up in hospitals each year with severe complications related to illegal abortions, and in 1965 alone, nearly 200 women died from those procedures.
The proliferation of well-trained, regulated, legal abortion doctors in the last 40 years has led to “dramatic decreases in pregnancy-related injury and death,” according to the National Abortion Federation.
Now, however, Texas and other states are reversing course. State lawmakers enacted more abortion restrictions between 2011 and 2013 than they had in the previous decade, a trend that appears likely to continue in 2014. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that nearly 300 anti-abortion bills are currently pending in state legislatures.
The new restrictions have had a significant impact on women’s access to abortion. A Huffington Post survey last year found that since 2010, at least 54 abortion providers across 27 states had either closed or stopped performing the procedure. Sixteen more shut their doors after Texas lawmakers passed some of the toughest abortion restrictions in the country last summer. A federal appeals court upheld two of the new restrictions in a ruling last week.
As a result, researchers and women’s health advocates say, women today are resorting to many of the same dangerous methods they relied on in the pre-Roe era: seeking out illegal abortion providers, as Karen Hulsey did, or attempting risky self-abortion procedures.
In 2014, four decades after the Supreme Court upheld a woman’s right to choose, pregnant women once again find themselves crossing the border to Mexico and haunting back-alleys in search of medical care.
Pedestrians walk past discount pharmacies in Nogales, Mexico, June 17, 2006. Today, women from the U.S. cross the border to Mexico to purchase misoprostol, a drug that can induce abortions. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The situation is particularly dire in Texas. In 2011, the state had 44 abortion clinics, but more than half of them have since shuttered due to new anti-abortion laws. In September, when a state law requiring all abortions to take place in ambulatory surgical centers goes into effect, reproductive rights advocates expect 14 more clinics will have to close, leaving only six facilities to serve the nearly 75,000 women who seek abortions in Texas each year.
The poorest area of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley near the Mexican border, has no remaining abortion clinics. Women who live there have to drive roughly 240 miles to San Antonio for the nearest clinic, but many of them are Mexican immigrants with restrictions on their work visas that prevent them from traveling that far.
In addition, the state has slashed funding for family planning, forcing 76 clinics that offer birth control and other reproductive health services but do not perform abortions to shut down.
“It’s a horrible natural experiment that is taking place in Texas, where we are going to see what happens in 2014 when U.S. women don’t have access to legal, safe abortion,” said Dan Grossman, vice president of research for Ibis Reproductive Health, an international nonprofit.
Anti-abortion advocates say the idea of back-alley abortions returning is just a scare tactic their opponents use to try to keep abortion legal.
“That is a statement that’s been purported by those who are anti-life, but in actuality, we haven’t seen any evidence of that taking place here,” said Melissa Conway, a spokeswoman for Texas Right to Life.
But Grossman, who is part of a research team that is currently studying the effects of the new abortion laws and family planning cuts in Texas, said he is already witnessing the consequences of the new restrictions.
“It seems like [women] are becoming more desperate to find an option,” he said. “We’ve heard reports of women taking herbs or other substances, or intentionally getting punched in the stomach or beaten up — the same kinds of things they did before abortion was legal.”
Ironically, in the years following Roe v. Wade, Texas had been a beacon of hope for Mexican women seeking abortions, since the procedure is illegal in most of Mexico.
“Texas has always been a place where people in Mexico came to get safe abortions,” said Lindsay Rodriguez, president of the Lilith Fund, which helps women in need pay for abortions in Texas. Now, she said, “traffic’s going to start going the other way.”
Indeed, the lack of abortion access in Texas is already pushing pregnant women back across the border. At Mexican pharmacies, they can purchase misoprostol, a drug with the labeled use of preventing gastric ulcers — but which can also induce abortions.
In the U.S., misoprostol is available only by prescription from a licensed abortion provider. The drug, first manufactured by Pfizer under the name Cytotec, is prescribed in combination with another medication, mifepristone (labeled RU-486), for abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy. The FDA has approved this combination of drugs for medically induced abortions in the first trimester, which account for almost a quarter of all non-hospital abortions in the U.S. each year, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The medications are extremely safe and more than 90 percent effective when taken together.
American women are learning that if they don’t have access to an abortion provider, they can obtain misoprostol illegally and take a high dose of it on its own to end a pregnancy. The drug is 75 to 85 percent effective in completing an abortion when taken properly up to nine weeks into a pregnancy, according to Ibis Reproductive Health, but it is relatively complicated to self-administer. A woman has to put 12 pills under her tongue in specific time-intervals, and she needs to have access to follow-up care in case she has complications or the pills don’t work.
“I’ve seen women who have used 50 pills all at one time,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the CEO of Whole Women’s Health, a network of abortion clinics in Texas. “They put them in every orifice of their body, because they had no idea how to use it. That’s the scary part — using any means necessary to self-induce.”
Taking misoprostol under the wrong circumstances and without medical supervision, doctors and women’s health advocates warn, can lead to life-threatening complications. A woman who takes the pill with an ectopic pregnancy, for instance, risks heavy internal bleeding due to rupturing of the fallopian tube. If a pregnancy does not pass completely, meanwhile, women run the risk of infection, fever and sepsis.
“Those are the major complications we’re going to be seeing in these communities without clinics,” Miller warned. Hemorrhaging and infection, if not properly treated, can lead to death.
Still, misoprostol is generally considered a safer and more palatable alternative to more primitive methods of self-abortions, and demand is quickly increasing among women living in areas where abortion is illegal or impossible to access. Rebecca Gomperts, a Dutch physician and founder of Women on Web, a digital community of abortion rights supporters, has published instructions on her website teaching women to take misoprostol properly on their own. She told HuffPost that her team regularly receives calls from women all over the U.S. seeking information about where to find the drug.
“In the United States there are import restrictions on abortion medications, so we just need to help women get access to them,” she said in a phone interview. “Sometimes that means we refer them over the border to Mexico.”
The trip across the border is often risky for women because of heavy drug cartel activity on the highways. And Mexican pharmacies have capitalized on the growing demand for misoprostol by marking up the cost to $200 or $300 per box.
Women in the U.S. can also obtain the pills illegally at flea markets in South Texas, or for about $100 a box over the internet, but Gomperts said the black market is awash in dubious drugs masquerading as misoprostol.
“There are a lot of fake websites out there, and there are a lot of people who take advantage of women’s desperate need,” she said.
Women who try to obtain the pills illegally, either online or on the black market, also run the risk of getting arrested. What’s more, women in the Rio Grande Valley who have obtained the pills are too afraid to share their stories, even anonymously, because they don’t want the police to crack down on the places that sell them.
“When the media first covered the flea market, it got raided by police and people got arrested,” Miller said. “When people start to cover this stuff, then the women can’t even get black market abortions. The culture in [South Texas] is one of extreme fear and caution — the women are so afraid of being put in jail.”
Women outside of Texas face the same obstacles. Jennifer Whalen, a 38-year-old Pennsylvania mother, was charged with a felony in December after she ordered a package of misoprostol and mifeprestone online from an overseas pharmacy for her pregnant 16-year-old daughter. Abortion is difficult to access in Pennsylvania due to severe restrictions on clinics there, and the closest clinic to Whalen’s town was across state lines in New York.
Whalen was charged with one count of medical consultation and judgment after her daughter had to go to the emergency room to be treated for an incomplete abortion and a urinary tract infection.
“We know that prohibition and criminalization will never stop women from having abortions,” said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “Illegal, self-abortions are a form of civil disobedience. Women will violate unjust laws and bear the health risks and the legal consequences, without causing harm to the people or institutions that make their decisions criminal.”
In addition to pushing women across the border into Mexico in search of misoprostol or other abortion solutions, the dwindling number of clinics in Texas and elsewhere has also revived the concept of “miscarriage management” — an idea that similarly harkens back to pre-Roe days, when doctors would quietly tell women to figure out a way to induce their own miscarriages so that they could legally intervene to treat the bleeding.
The New Republic reported that one of the last remaining abortion providers in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, Dr. Lester Minto, resorted to the idea of “miscarriage management” when a law went into effect in November that prohibited him from providing abortions. Minto offered treatment to women who had already started their own miscarriages for $400, lab work and ultrasound included. The visit would last two to three hours at most.
“Nothing here is back alley,” Minto told the magazine. “We do follow-ups with everybody. We still treat them just like we always did.”
But even Minto’s practice is now closed, leaving women few options for follow-up care when they try to self-abort in the Rio Grande Valley. The treatment Minto was providing would cost $2,000 to $3,000 in a hospital, require a general anesthetic and take up an entire day, Miller told HuffPost, which is out of reach for many poor and uninsured women.
With so many doors closed to them, back-alley remedies may soon be all that are left for many women.
“The situation politicians have put women in right now is untenable,” said Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. “Making abortion out of reach only pushes women into the shadows.”
Karen Hulsey is particularly concerned about the situation facing women today. For five years in the 1990s, she worked as a physician’s assistant at an abortion clinic in Brownwood, Texas. There, she helped treat Mexican immigrants who had had traumatizing experiences similar to what she herself went through in 1969.
“I saw the effects of abortions on girls in Mexico who were raped, and the results of those abortions, as far as the shape of their vagina and their cervix,” she said. “It was just abhorrent, the scarring from the methods that were being used. I would not be surprised if the same thing were going on today.”
Hulsey, now 65, retired in 2000 after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which doctors said she developed after her abortion and rape in Mexico. Although she has two children now, she said she has had trouble holding down a healthy romantic relationship because of what she went through.
Now that Texas lawmakers are spending so much time trying to limit access to abortion, she said, she is reminded of her trauma constantly.
“There are very few weeks that I don’t think about the severity of what I went through, especially with it being so up front in the news right now,” she said. “Every time anything like that comes up, I think, ‘Oh you people just don’t have any idea what you’re doing. No clue what you’d be sending girls back to.'”
Reproductive rights advocates rally at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on July 1, 2013. (Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated Henry Wade’s position at the time of the suit as Texas attorney general; he was district attorney for Dallas County.
Roger’s note: There is definitely something strange going on in the universe when I find the Pope’s remarks relevant (although I will not forget that as Bishop he at best kept quiet during the era of atrocities under the military dictatorship in Argentina). What he says about the church and ideology also applies to the world of Marxism, where the continent of thought created by Marx’s brilliant mind and his political activity has been ossified into a materialist and economic ideology by many who call themselves Marxist rather than a living and dynamic philosophy of human liberation that needs to be re-worked out for each generation.
Based on past statements, Pope Francis’ remarks were aimed mostly at the Christian Right.
While Pope Francis did not specifically mention Christian right-wing ideology during the Mass, his past remarks suggest he was talking about that ideology most of all.
In September, Pope Francis attacked “savage capitalism” and took up the plight of the unemployed against a system that worships money. Earlier that month, the Pope also criticized conservative Catholics for focusing so much on abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception. And in July, Pope Francis put the brakes on hating gay people, saying that we shouldn’t judge or marginalize them.
Clearly, Pope Francis isn’t fond of the extreme ideals of the Christian Right. He supports helping the poor. He believes in economic fairness. He denounces hatred of gay people. He thinks the war against abortion and birth control has gone too far. Considering all of these things, it’s pretty obvious that Pope Francis was mostly talking to right-wing Christians on Thursday. Their ideological fanaticism has damaged religion. They have abandoned the true teachings of Jesus to pursue an extremist agenda. And Pope Francis just called them out for it. Cue right-wing rage in 3, 2, 1…
“In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements. The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh?”
In light of the recent case of Beatriz, a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman and mother of a toddler, who, while suffering from lupus and kidney failure and carrying an anencephalic fetus, was denied the right to an abortion, it is relevant to discuss the restrictive abortion laws in Latin America and some of the reasons behind them.
Latin America is home to five of the seven countries in the world in which abortion is banned in all instances, even when the life of the woman is at risk: Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic, with the Vatican City and Malta outside the region. Legal abortion upon request during the first trimester is only available in Cuba (as of 1965), Mexico City (as of 2007), and Uruguay (as of 2012). In the rest of the continent, abortion is criminalized in most circumstances, with few exceptions, the most common of which are when the life or health of the woman is at risk, rape, incest and/or fetus malformations. However, even in these cases the legal and practical hurdles a woman has to face to have an abortion are such that many times these exceptions are not available, or by the time they are authorized it is too late. The consequences of such criminalization are well known: high maternal mortality and morbidity rates due to unsafe back alley abortions that affect poor and young women disproportionately.
The current laws ruling abortion in the region have been inherited from colonial powers. They are a legacy of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. While European women have already gotten rid of these laws many decades ago, Latin American women still have to deal with them. Why is this so?
As both scholars and activists know by now, women’s rights, like other human rights, are only respected if a movement organizes around them and puts pressure on the state to change unfair laws and policies. While feminist movements swept Europe and North America during the 1960s and 70s, Latin American countries were busy fighting dictatorships and civil wars. It is not that women did not organize, but rather they did so to oppose the brutal regimes and to address the needs of poor populations hit by the recurrent economic crises. Reproductive rights just had to wait. When democracy finally arrived in the region—in the 1980s in South American and the 1990s in Central America—feminist movements gradually began to push for reproductive rights. For example, the September 28th Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion was launched in 1990 in the context of the Fifth Latin American and Caribbean Feminist meeting held in San Bernardo, Argentina. Since then, most countries in the region have seen mobilizations and protests around this date. However, by the time the movements began to focus on reproductive rights, the global context had changed and the conservative right had also set up a strong opposition to any change to the status quo.
The strongholds of the opposition to decriminalization lie in two places: first, the Catholic Church, and second, the ascendance of the religious right in the United States. The Catholic Church has historically been a strong political actor in Latin America, ever since its large role in the conquest and colonization of the continent by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in the 16th and 17th centuries. The church’s influence among both political and economic elites is still a reality in the whole region with only a variation of degree among the different countries. However, the church’s strong opposition to abortion has not been constant. While the church has always condemned abortion, it used to be considered a misdemeanor and not a murder of an innocent human life, as in the current discourse. In addition, it was not until the late 1800s that the church considered that life started at conception. Until 1869, a fetus was thought to receive its soul from 40 to 80 days after conception, abortion being a sin only after the ensoulment had taken place.
Even in the beginning of the 20th century, when many Latin American countries passed their current legislation that allowed legal abortion under certain circumstances, the Catholic Church did not pose a strong opposition to these reforms. As Mala Htun explains in her research on South American abortion laws, at the time abortion reforms were passed by a nucleus of male politicians, doctors, and jurists. In addition, these reforms legalized abortion only in very limited circumstances and required the authorization of a doctor and/or a judge, and therefore represented no real threat to the dominant discourse of abortion being morally wrong. The church only began organizing against abortion decriminalization when feminist movements came together to claim the autonomy of women’s bodies threatening this consensus.
When John Paul II became Pope in 1978, moral issues such as abortion were given a priority in the church’s mission as never before. Having lived through the Soviet conquest of his home country, Poland, and experienced the repression of Catholicism and the legalization of abortion there, the Pope felt very strongly about these issues. Once many of the European Catholic countries achieved the legalization of abortion in the 1970s and 80s, Latin America, being the largest Catholic region in the world, became the battleground in which abortion policy would be fought and decided.
Together with this shift within the Catholic Church, a second stronghold of the opposition has come from the United States. Long past the days of Roe v. Wade, since the 1980s the increasing influence of the religious right within the Republican Party has implied that U.S. reproductive rights policies have been increasingly anti-abortion when this party was in office. How has this affected Latin America? Both directly, by banning federal funding for international NGOs involved with providing, advising, or even advocating for abortion decriminalization (known as the Mexico City Policy or the Global Gag Rule), and also indirectly, through the legitimacy and strength given to anti-abortion discourses, particularly during the George W. Bush administration.
Latin American politicians have not been indifferent to these trends and have thus sought the support of the Catholic Church and/or U.S. Republicans and anti-abortion groups to strengthen their chances of winning office. Unfortunately, in this context the future of Beatriz and many other poor and young women in the region remains politically uncertain.
Once again – why does this week’s news all sound like it comes from The Onion? – this is real. The above is the new campaign bumper sticker for one Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas). He recently threatened to impeach Obama for daring to consider gun control measures, invited gun owners feeling “unwanted” and “persecuted” to move to Texas, and argues that “the right to life is the great civil rights struggle of our age – no little boy or little girl should be subjected to violence because the government has declared them less than human,” which he says is Just Like slavery. We can’t think of much in the way of response, except that Costa Rica is looking better and better.
just 48 hours, our MPs will debate a Conservative motion that the Canadian
Medical Association, representing 70,000 doctors, is calling a backdoor attempt
to criminalize abortion.
In 1988, the Supreme Court of
Canada ruled that the abortion provision of the Criminal Code was
unconstitutional. But this week, Parliament will be debating a motion
that would threaten our reproductive rights – and the rights of our friends,
daughters, mothers, sisters, and partners.
Prime Minister Harper has
chosen to allow this motion to go forward to a free vote in Parliament, so every
MP must decide whether or not they will stand up for the rights that women and
our allies have been fighting to protect for decades.
We need a
huge public outcry to show our MPs that Canadians will not tolerate this attack
on women’s rights. Please click here to send an urgent message to your MP to
defeat Motion-312 now – then forward this to
Proving definitively that Arizona is the worst place in the country to be a woman, or even a biped, Gov. Jan Brewer has signed into law three extreme anti-abortion measures including a so-called “egg drop” bill that effectively bans abortion after 18 weeks, except in cases of medical emergency, by redefining pregnancy as beginning two weeks before conception. Also under the richly named Women’s Health and Safety Act, schools and the state must promote adoption and birth as the best outcome for an unwanted pregnancy, in part by displaying images of fetuses. And clinics must have signs warning against abortion “coercion” – all this, in the name of “protecting women from the serious health and safety risks of abortion.” We’re speechless.
The surreally awful news in the war on lady parts just keeps coming. An Idaho legislator wants women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound and “counselling;” if she was raped, her doctor should make sure she was really raped and not just a participant in “normal relations in a marriage.” Alaska’s State Rep. Alan Dick (really) wants women seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound and a written permission slip from the guy who, you know. Arizona wants to make it nigh on impossible to get an abortion, but if you make it through all the legislative hurdles you should have to watch an abortion. Then again, the author of the Arizona bill requiring women to prove to their bosses they are using birth control pills for non-slutty reasons, or get fired, is rewriting the bill because apparently, bewilderingly, some people got upset. Funny: Why don’t we feel better?