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.
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.”
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.
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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For more information:
Catholics for a Right to Choose (in Spanish):
International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere:
Center for Reproductive Rights, Shadow Report on Bolivia (PDF format)
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