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Abortion rights and Latin America Left

May 31st, 2008 · No Comments

From R-G

Bolivia’s ‘Bad Births’ Sit on Political Sidelines
Run Date: 01/15/08
By Jean Friedman-Rudovsky
WeNews correspondent

The leftist trend in Latin America is going hand in hand with a
reversal of abortion rights. In anti-corporate Bolivia, for instance,
a push last month to constitutionally broaden a ban was blocked only
at the last minute.

Delegates vote on Bolivia’s new constitution.

LA PAZ, Bolivia (WOMENSENEWS)–Bolivia’s 255-delegate Constituent
Assembly under President Evo Morales–the country’s first indigenous
leader and widely considered one of the region’s most leftist heads of
state–last month narrowly avoided adding a ban on all abortion to its
new constitution, regardless of the dangers to a woman’s life.

Surprise? Not in Latin America.

While abortion rights may be a rough dividing line between left and
right in the United States, progressive party rule here is no ticket
to pro-choice advancement in this region.

In the past two years, Nicaragua’s government of former revolutionary
Sandinistas has banned all abortions. The president of Uruguay–leader
of his country’s historic left-wing party–has vowed to veto
parliamentary attempts to legalize abortion. And Venezuelans’ push to
decriminalize the procedure has come to a virtual halt under socialist
President Hugo Chavez.

Here in Bolivia the recent abortion controversy revolved around five
words–“from the moment of conception”–which were to follow the
text’s guarantee to the right to life.

The phrase would have effectively outlawed all abortion in Bolivia, a
major change for the country. The country is drafting a new
constitution to give Bolivia’s historically marginalized poor and
indigenous majority a chance to help create a new foundational text.

Technically, abortion here was legalized in 1973 for victims of sexual
assault or to prevent a life-threatening pregnancy. In practice,
however, abortions are often performed without any legal inspection
and the country has never seen an abortion provider prosecuted.

Bolivia has one of the highest abortion rates in the world: up to
80,000 procedures annually in a country of only 9 million people,
according to the United Nations.
Prohibitive Expense

Many are relatively safe procedures performed in more than a dozen
clinics around the country. But the average $150 fee is prohibitive
for most in South America’s poorest nation, so many look for
alternative methods.

“First, I tried vaginal inserts,” says one Bolivian woman, referring
to a widely available ulcer drug that has become a popular
do-it-yourself abortion option because of the medicine’s side effects.
“When that didn’t work I found someone to do it for $30. I passed out
during it and when I woke up, I was bloody and he was gone.”

She was relatively lucky; at least one woman a day here ends up dead
in this type of swallow-hard-and-take-the-risk medical care.

Despite the high number of deaths, talking about abortion remains
taboo here in Bolivia.

Catholicism, the constitutionally established official religion, helps
explain that. In Catholic schools, children are required to watch a
video of a womb undergoing an abortion. It was church authorities who
brought the conception clause to Constituent Assembly delegates when
the body first began its proceedings.

Anti-abortion sentiment is widespread in secular life as well, says
Claudia Lopez, a 31-year-old pro-choicer in Cochabamba. “Regardless of
religion, we learn that conception isn’t an option, it’s our
function,” she says. “Women who abort live with a lifetime of guilt.”
Entrenched Resistance

Major newspapers run pictures of a thumb-size fetus in a glass jar
alongside articles about abortion. Staff in medical clinics often try
to dissuade their patients from having abortions, telling them it is
better to choose life than murder, say interviewees.

Meanwhile leftist indigenous women–who have been key players in
Bolivia’s recent political battles–have, for the most part, steered
clear of the issue.

Paul Bustillos, political director for La Paz-based Catholics for the
Right to Choose, says that’s because pro-choice leaders have not
engaged the country’s indigenous majority.

“Here, the women’s movement is known as a middle- or upper-class,
white and often foreigner-led phenomenon,” says Bustillos.

An indication of this disconnect: Many abortions are performed in
rural areas where indigenous people predominate, yet the procedures
are not referred to by their clinical name. Instead of “abortions”
they are called “bad births” and are followed by cleansing rituals.
Balky Assembly

In the end, Morales’ ruling Movement Towards Socialism party blocked
the conception clause from the final text of the constitution, which
still must be approved by national vote later this year. But it was
like pulling teeth, say sources in the assembly, where about 1 in 4
delegates is female.

Bustillos says Catholics for the Right to Choose went into a “state of
emergency” when the conception clause was introduced. Staff and
volunteers distributed educational materials, led workshops and
implored delegates not to doom their daughters and granddaughters to
unwanted or risky pregnancies.

A key point, Bustillos says, was telling delegates that Bolivia’s new
constitution should enhance existing rights and not take them away.

Pro-choice advocates here know that in Latin America, a region that
counts over 4 million abortions each year and up to 10,000 resulting
deaths, Bolivia’s resistance is not likely to dissolve any time soon.

“It’s not that they don’t understand, because inevitably they’ve all
had a loved one go through this,” says a Bolivian woman who recently
had an abortion, referring to the region’s new political leadership.
“It’s about the strong societal force pushing against acceptability.
And overcoming that is going to take more than a few years of
left-wing governments.”

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is the correspondent for Time magazine in
Bolivia and is a founding editor of Ukhampacha Bolivia,
www.ubnoticias.org/es, a bilingual online journal on Bolivian and
Latin American politics.

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