A culture of Silence
22 Nov, 2017 | Fruzsina Gál
Abortion and a novel conversation
On 30 September 2017, the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies approved a revised version of the nation’s penal code that could make abortion laws more flexible in the country. Article 157 of the proposed bill gives access to safe and legal abortions to more women than ever before. Beyond cases of rape, incest and life-threatening pregnancies, the revised penal code allows abortions for women who are studying and women who take care of people with disabilities, children, the elderly or other dependants, and in cases of teenage and child pregnancies. Passing the bill would be the first significant change to Bolivian abortion laws since 2014, when the legal requirement for a judicial order to request an abortion was abolished. As a result of this, the number of legal abortions in Bolivia has increased from a total of seven between 1974 and 2014, to more than 100 since then.
Although the proposed changes to the penal code could permit safer and more efficient ways for women to gain access to legal abortions, anyone acting beyond the law could face one to three years’ jail time. The possibility for change has initiated a seemingly endless debate between predominantly Christian pro-life supporters and pro-choice advocates. But is one step enough, in any direction?
According to UNICEF, Bolivia is one of the world’s leading countries in maternal mortality, due to clandestine abortions or the lack of available reproductive-health information. As stated by the Bolivian Ministry of Health, abortion is the third-leading cause of death of women in the country, resulting in more than 500 deaths per year. Mónica Novillo, director of the NGO Coordinadora de la Mujer, claims that abortion is first and foremost a human-rights problem. ‘Abortion is the consequence of the absence of fundamental rights. If women can’t decide when to have relations, if they are raped, if they have no access to information on how their bodies work, if they have no access to contraceptive methods, then the numbers of maternal mortality will never change.’
Approximately 185 illegal abortions take place each day in Bolivia.
Abortion, however, is as much a social-justice issue as it is a human-rights concern. According to the Coordinadora de la Mujer, Bolivia, which has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in Latin America, has approximately 185 illegal abortions taking place each day. Data indicates that women who die from these procedures are mostly women who can’t afford safe clinical care. Naturally, women coming from privileged economic backgrounds have access to better health care. According to the Bolivian Ministry of Health, two-thirds of maternal deaths involve women from the Quechua and Aymara nations. This indicates a correlation between socio-economic backgrounds and reproductive-health safety, although women from all backgrounds deserve access to the same solutions.
Further data points at a more complex and thoroughly cultural issue: silence. In the case of indigenous girls and women, history, socio-economic position and tradition all play into a culture of secrecy regarding sexual matters. Beyond cultural heritage, religious beliefs also play a role in silencing conversations about reproductive health. And the Judeo-Christian concept of shame, paired with the indigenous culture of secrecy, makes open discussions about abortion a rare occurrence in Bolivian society. Instead of encouraging a safe, well-informed sexual life, these cultural factors foment silence, increasing the risk of unwanted pregnancies and other social issues.
According to Tania Nava, director of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir, religious fundamentalists often spread misinformation in Bolivia based on guilt and sin to discourage abortions. Even Catholics with a nuanced understanding of the issue employ sin as a tool to advocate for their positions. Bernardo Prieto, for example, who is a local researcher and journalist, sustains that ‘as Jesus teaches, the true fulfillment of justice is mercy.’ But the very concept of mercy implies wrongdoing. According to pro-choice activists, abortion should be addressed as a public-health issue devoid of moral considerations, because as long as it is considered a moral issue there will be reasons for silence. And silence results in death – 206 deaths for every 100,000 births to be exact. In Uruguay, where abortion was decriminalised, there are only 15 deaths for every 100,000 births. The contrast between these figures sheds light on the weight of the problem in Bolivia.
As Mónica Novillo suggests, in order to move the abortion debate away from the moral arena, it might be better to take abortion out of the penal code all together. That way, she says, ‘It won’t generate clandestine activities and profitable businesses that feed on the desperation of women. If we remove it from the penal code it becomes the responsibility of the state to provide safe abortion clinics.’ Most pro-choice activists would agree, sustaining that the revised penal code in Bolivia is progressive, but that it is far from decriminalisation. Although this is a small step forward, it seems to please local interest groups involved with the issue. But why is that the case?
Abortion is first and foremost a human-rights issue.
Julieta Ojeda, of the women’s collective Mujeres Creando, responds plainly: ‘From a political point of view, it isn’t progressive. Even if the bill passes, it is only a neutral middle ground meant to please everyone.’ According to her, the distinction to be made here is between legalisation and decriminalisation. Some activists point out that the legislative assembly has not decriminalised abortion, it has merely added exceptions for legal procedures. Others believe the apparent progress is a convenient outlet for political campaigns and manipulation. But in our meetings with pro-choice groups, most people shared a sense of victory over the possibility of progress. No one seemed to mind that it took 20 years to make this incremental improvement and might take another 20 to reach decriminalisation.
The abortion debate has sparked interest and action in diverse spaces in Bolivia, from religious to secular groups, from the social to the political arena. This ongoing conversation is crucial for achieving further progress on the issue.