Organized Feminist Response is Taking Safe Abortion “Out of the Closet”

28 September 2018

More and more, everybody is talking about abortion. This includes people who practice abortions and those who don't, doctors and journalists, feminist and anti-rights groups. With the 13J and 8A actions in Argentina, a green wave began to expand across the continent. However, the individuals who are putting their bodies on the line to ensure access to safe abortions, are organized feminist youth. From Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, this reports tells how, in their countries, they accompany the decision to abort.

According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest abortion rate in the world. The region is divided into a few countries that have legalized abortion (Cuba, Uruguay, Puerto Rico, and Mexico City), and on the other end countries that have completely criminalized the practice (El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Suriname).

In the middle, other countries have a partial decriminalization or legal abortion in specific cases (rape, fetal malformation, and risk to the woman's life). In these countries (depending on the country and region) bureaucratic obstacles are common and they can prevent abortion within the legal time limits. In other cases it is necessary to prove a rape or conscientious objection is combined with religious morals and ambiguity within the medical system when defining “risk to life or health.”

In this context, 97% of women in Latin America and the Caribbean live in countries with restrictive abortion laws; and 60% of abortions are unsafe. The region also leads internationally in the rate of unplanned pregnancies.

An immense task

A few of the collectives and networks that work in the region to provide information and accompany women who decide to abort are: Socorristas en Red (Rescuers Network) of Argentina, Serena Morena (Serene Brown Women) of Peru, Con las Amigas y en la Casa(With Friends and at Home) of Chile, Las Parceras(Girlfriends) of Colombia, Ecuménicas por el Derecho a Decidir(Ecumenical Women for the Right to Decide) of Honduras, 28 Lunas(28 Moons) of the Dominican Republic, Las Comadres(The Co-mothers) of Ecuador, Mujeres en el Horno (Women in the Oven) of Uruguay.

Organized feminist women agree that a lack of information is the first barrier to an abortion. There is abundant information online, but it is not always trustworthy, nor is the information provided by they guy secretly selling medicines on the street. There is silence, a lack of companionship and understanding, a feeling that other women don’t face the same situation, and fear of going to jail.

Regardless of the multiple obstacles, a woman who wants to abort does so, exposing herself to a dangerous underground system, criminalization (penal and social), and state abandonment. However, if a woman is rich everything changes. Economic resources, support, private clinics, and travel to other countries can be a solution.

However, when a poor woman aborts in Latin America, the problems begin. This is the case of Teodora in El Salvador, she was sentenced to 30 years in jail for a miscarriage, and is added to the list of “17” (24 by April 2018) women in El Salvador who faced the same kind of criminalization. Or the thousands of women exposed to violence in the gray market, underground clinics, and due to family rejection.

Each country is distinct. In Chile, abortion medication is restricted exclusively to inpatient use, it is not available in pharmacies, even with a prescription. However, on the gray market a complete dose of misoprostol can cost up to a Chilean monthly minimum wage. Since August 2016, the network Con las Amigas y en la Casa accompanies abortions and provides information in almost all regions of the country. It also provides information so that women are not swindled on the gray market. They believe that women should be able to abort even if they don't have enough money.

In the Tucumán province, in northwestern Argentina, Socorro Rosa (part of Socorristas en Red at a national level) has 11 members, the majority young lesbians. Its “main weapon is love for women and among women,” and they abort “among sisters.” Malena, one of its members, said that “in Tucumán woman who want to abort do so, it is an open secret.” The issue is whether or not the abortion is safe. Obstacles in the province are a lack of comprehensive sexual education, zero access to contraception in public hospitals, and a religious discourse that has infiltrated the schools.

From Lima, Peru, members of Serena Morena say that, even though medication is available at pharmacies with a prescription, the underground market is very present. “There were cases of uterine perforation, raped women, anything, in the underground clinics. There are a ton of gynecologists and specialists who are a disgrace and benefit from women's lack of information.” The game of double morals is persistent, women cannot denounce what has happened to them, since according to the law they have also committed a crime.

Uruguay, with its Law for the Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy --in force since 2012-- is a very different situation. Any Uruguayan woman can abort up to the 12th week of pregnancy (14th in the case of rape, and without limits if the woman's life is at risk or if fetal anomalies exist). However, abortions are not available to women who have surpassed that timeline or migrants residing in the country for under a year. Since 2014, Mujeres en el Horno has had a telephone hot line to provide information and support.

According to Andrea and María José, “the law does not have an allocated budget” and has had limited dissemination. These are the main limitations that women face when they decide to abort. “Many women call the hot line not even knowing where to start.” For example, they think that they have to go to a special hospital, when in fact they only need to go to their health care provider. Even so, the law states that a woman must present her case before a group of specialists, and during the process “reflect over five days” to ratify her decision. This can extend the time line, ending up outside the 12 week limit.

Obstacles for Uruguayan women are: not being able to choose the most convenient method or location, or that which gives them the most security. Abortions are only performed with pills (that together with Manual Vacuum Aspiration are the safest methods and used internationally) and always in the home (women should have the right to go to the hospital for the procedure if they wish). Additional obstacles are: conscientious objection, declared by 40% of the country's professionals; institutional conscientious objection (when an institution refuses to perform abortions) has been declared by two health care providers nationally; a cultural criminalization of abortion (it is still in the criminal code); and nonexistent access in most rural areas, even though the law has been in place for seven years.

What is feminist accompaniment?

For the accompaniers interviewed, it means not turning their back on women who need to terminate a pregnancy. It is being moved by a desire to accompany a women's decision and guarantee she can have a protected and safe abortion. As the motto of Con las Amigas y en la Casa states: “a woman who wants an abortion and contacts us, has an abortion.” It means listening with respect, empathy, and non-judgment; offering security to reduce the pressure and anguish generated by underground procedures, and politicizing the weight of blame that socially falls on the shoulders of women who make autonomous decisions about their bodies. It permits fluid communication, a listening to women's voices, and asking how they feel. This is about making a personal decision supported by a group of women, making an individual decision a collective political struggle.

This is a tremendously revolutionary act: women join other women to autonomously decide about their bodies. Myths are demolished, like the “bad woman” or “I am alone,” and allows the violence suffered to be put into words. This is an act that is worth a thousand acts. “With abortion we challenge the mother-role placed on women in a misogynist society. We are not worth less than anyone and our decisions must be respected,” assures a member of Serena Morena.

A woman who wants to abort can contact someone from the collectives or networks in her country to request information. Sometimes a telephone consultation is enough, but face-to-face meetings are also organized and there is follow-up. Serena Morena prefers meetings in a public space to “move abortion out of the private sphere;” Con las Amigas y en la Casa does telephone accompaniment if women are far away or covers costs if she must travel; Socorro Rosa Tucumán generates a space through a weekly workshop where women who abort can meet each other; Mujeres en el Horno uses telephone accompaniment for women who abort at home, even if Uruguayan law protects them and they have seen a doctor.

Implementing what they call “women's feminist engineering,” information is shared on how abortions are performed: what medicines are used, when to take them, the best place to take them, if bleeding and pain are normal, how to detect emergency symptoms, what to do if you need to go to the hospital. All this information is made available so that women are taken care of during the process. If she has faced violence from her partner or in the medical system, information and support are provided to file a complaint.

Organized feminists use direct action to take abortion out of the closet, removing the stigma, humanizing it, and opening a space for more women to talk about their experience. They are challenging medical hegemony and taking care of the life and health of those who abort. This helps to prevent an increase in maternal mortality in their countries, and promotes knowledge about safe medicine based methods, which are scientifically proven.

According to information from Socorristas en Red, each year there are fewer women accompanied by the network who have to go the hospital. “We think this is because we have learned to sooth anxieties resulting from alarm signs that are not always an emergency.” Even if an abortion does not generate physical complications, it is still unsafe if it generate emotional complications.

The Virgin Mary 2.0

Anti-rights groups are watching closely as we place our bodies in the public sphere to ensure free and safe abortions. The danger is visible on social networks and palpable on the streets. Trolls and anti-rights social media groups make generalized threats against the Latin American networks and support lines; and there is physical violence against people who publicly protest in favor of abortion. Just a few examples are: three women were stabbed during the March for Free Abortion on July 25th, 2018 in Chile, Brazilian reproductive rights activist Debora Diniz received death threats, and many Argentine girls were attacked in the streets and in their homes for wearing a green handkerchief.

In response, the collective care strategies are as diverse as the collectives themselves. “We decided not to respond, because when a guy says something on Facebook 120 women crash down on him. We defend ourselves among ourselves. When there are more of us and we are more visible, we are safer,” say members of Con las Amigas y en la Casa.

However, Socorro Rosa has a different story. On March 8th, 2017 they carried out a symbolic performance during the march and women's general strike. The “Virgin Mary” aborted “patriarchy and its misogynistic institutions: marriage, obligatory maternity, and heterosexuality,” said Malena. It all took place on the streets of Tucumán, a small province that declared its “pro-life” stance with “provincial and moralist legislature” in August of 2018.

What followed was persecution from anti-right groups; with "escrache" or exposing Socorrista members’ names, telephone numbers, and addresses; and an incitement of hatred and violence. Collective members had to leave the province for a month. In addition, Church representatives filed complaints against them at the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism “for affecting the morale of catholic followers” with their actions.

Different methods are used by religious anti-rights and fundamentalist groups who are on the prowl to stop the small advances achieved by feminist women through years of struggle and resistance. For example, doctors who declare conscientious objection (often in mass) to not perform abortions. Anticipating this, Con las amigas… created the OLA project: Observers of the Abortion Law, to document the healthcare centers that guarantee the right and which do not, and how many women have not been able to access abortion within the three legally approved cases.

Urgent Action

Often a veil remains, hiding everything behind and buried in abortion; for some, the tip of the iceberg is the patriarchal-capitalist system. It is not by chance that most criminalized women are poor women of color; and for organized feminist youth, the fight for free access to abortion is crucial. For many state supported abortion, like in Uruguay, is not the final goal because legality does not guarantee a safe abortion. This is a legal and cultural fight, it is necessary to be able to discuss abortion and reach more women.

That is why a network, collective, or telephone hot line is growing in each country. They seek to provide information, accompaniment, security, confidence, and empathy for the women who decide to abort. Organized feminists are the women who are placing their bodies on the line to do this, and to achieve the minimum that a democratic state must guarantee: health, security, and autonomy for women. They have been able to put abortion on the feminist agenda in each country and demonstrate time and time again that the feminist perspective is promoting free access to safe abortions. These are seeds that expand in cities and towns, at the heart of the countries, and in their peripheral regions. That is why so many of the women who receive help from feminists who support abortion end up joining the fight.

by: Flor Pagola

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