Busting Restrictive Abortion Laws and Stigma Latin America: Spacious Solidarity

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Estrategias en cuidado comunitario en lugares restrictivos

Our next Spacious Solidarity Dialogue on Legal Reimaginations was between Genesis Luigi (Venezuela), Regina Fonseca (Honduras) and Sara Garcia Gross (El Salvador). 

The discussants are inroads members who have been involved in the struggle for decriminalising abortion in Latin America. Tune in as they speak on their multiple years of experience working for legal change and abortion stigma-busting about community care and feminist learnings from their movements. 

*Este platica esta en espanol! En la session en vivo, habría interpretacion en ingles. Las notas de abajo son en inglés también para los parlantes de inglés.

*This dialogue is in Spanish. In the live zoom session, there was English interpretation. The notes below are in English and were written by the session facilitator, Aditi Pinto.

Los Comentaristas / The Hosts

Génesis es una psicóloga conductual y social venezolana. Como mujer migrante y activista feminista, se especializa en derechos sexuales y reproductivos y en justicia reproductiva. Ha trabajado haciendo investigación, desarrollo de currículos en educación integral en sexualidad, e incidencia para organizaciones locales y globales destinadas a promover el acceso a la salud y la educación en América Latina y el Caribe. Génesis forma parte de la junta directiva del fondo de aborto por el aborto seguro. Actualmente está cursando un máster en Antropología Médica en el Graduate Institute de Ginebra e investigando sobre abortos autogestionados. Le encanta pasar el tiempo con su gata Gama, correr y comer café con pan.

Regina Fonseca, feminista hondureña, psicologa de profesión, con maestría en población y desarrollo, de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras y postgrado en estudios de la Mujer de la Universidad Rafael Landivar de Guatemala. Integrante del Centro de Derechos de Mujeres.

Sara García, Activista feminista. Psicóloga y máster en Derechos Humanos y democratización para América Latina y el Caribe, Integrante de la Agrupación Ciudadana por la despenalización del aborto en El Salvador

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Caminos/ Journeys

Different experiences brought us to our activism and these include our childhood schooling that spoke against abortion, followed by when we encountered feminist movements/organisations/processes in our places that got us to unlearn alot and come together (for example the struggle against the criminalization of Karina in El Salvador). 

Furthermore, our life experiences related to our own reproductive and sexual health and rights (of being a young mother for example), literature that we read (such as Simone de Beauvoir’s la Mujer Rota) and also the political backdrop of dictatorship and increasing authoritarianism in all spheres of life but especially in the lives of women that we witnessed as young people and made us want to work on human rights and bodily autonomy. In these contexts, it was very difficult to put boundaries to our work as the larger context was heavy and also it was hard to put limits between our “home” duties and outside work. Some things we do to take care of our health: take care of plants, hang out with our grandkids.

One thing that we learned in our activism, which has been a continuous education process, is that for us living in restricted abortion settings legal change was the goal. Now as part of inroads especially, we learned that even with legal change abortion stigma continues to exist and therefore we need to work in a more sustainable way, taking care of ourselves but continuing to bust abortion stigma.

Contextos/Contexts

El Salvador

The case of Karina in mid 2000s in El Salvador brought together la Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto to fight for women who were being criminalised for their reproductive choices, and also to change the social narrative around abortion in general. They realised that is was important to create liberatory narratives to speak about abortion in everyday life. The other important work for them was legal change to take abortion out of the penal code. Lastly, strategic litigation has been important especially related to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. 

Recently, the case of Manuela which has been ongoing and we have been accompanying her family and documenting this since 2011, has become a historic moment now in March 2021. Manuela had a miscarriage, however the stigma-filled narrative that spread and got her incarcerated was that she had an abortion due to having the pregnancy out of marriage. She had been in jail for so many years, where she developed lymphatic cancer and died– leaving behind her children and family. We began to fight for justice for Manuela- who like so many poor, indigenous women were being criminalised. The court decision in March 2021 that implicates the El Salvadoran state is very important for the future of women’s sexual and reproductive rights and also questions criminalisation and restrictive laws. It continues to be important to build solidarity with Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras and even Argentina (where abortion is now legal) however women continue to be stigmatized/ criminalised. There are a lot of anti-rights groups and religious groups as well, especially since this case of obstetric emergency reached the highest court, who have stigmatised the family of Manuela and us as activists. “Manuela, Justice y Esperanza” is the slogan that groups in El Salvador are using to continue this struggle.

Venezuela

A young girl was raped and got pregnant and Vanessa (an acompanante) accompanied her abortion. The two people who have been criminalised are the mother and Vanessa, and the rapist has been out free. This is the general case where the people most affected by restrictive settings, or people working to help other people out in these settings are always targeting. In general, abortion in so many contexts is only accepted when a doctor is doing it. The work of people accompanying abortions, supporting self-managed abortions is so highly attacked. Right now activists from all parts of civil society are being attacked brutally. Activists who distribute anti retro-viral medicines, accompany abortions and so many more have been arrested. Vanessa is one of them. It is very important in our context to create connections and alliances with people of other social movements. Right now the situation in Venezuela is very disheartening, the church and state have too much power, and while we continue to work with the hope for change, every day is more difficult than the previous one. 

Honduras

Honduras has a history of conservative authoritarianism, and digging deeper into these experiences we can probably provide learnings for other places that have this context. In Honduras, like few other countries, there was a constitutional reform to say that abortion is fully prohibited, even though it already said so in the Penal Code. A constitutional reform needed ⅔ of the votes of the Parliament, and in early 2021 ¾ of the house voted for this in Honduras, and now only 2 other clauses related to territorial issues have such a heavy weight in the constitution as does the clause that prohibits abortion. 

There are also neo-liberal, conservative groups who are working hard and are strongly articulated to make all our work on sexual-reproductive rights go backwards. They are very present in Honduras. We continue working in whichever we can work formally, we have been rejecting the constitutional reform very strongly since January 2021 and also the Penal Code where almost all clauses were changed in 2020 except the clause on abortion. For us it is very crucial to work to understand how this Power composed of senators, ministers, religious groups and neo-liberal conservative groups (with connection to Republicans in the US) are working, and to continue to march forward. 

Strategies, Messages and Media:

A restrictive context makes you very practical and strategic. Therefore we have to think of spacious, amplified strategies that do not directly target or implicate the causes of abortion stigma (religious, political groups etc.) but we have to work on spreading more liberatory narratives and changing people’s mindsets in more strategic ways. 

The message of “Vida Digna” or “Life with Dignity” is key for us. In a recent study of women who had abortions, the most common word they used was “Fear”. Therefore, we have to replace this vocabulary with messages of Dignity and Living Well. We make links with the Migrant Caravans, so many people from Honduras and Central America who flee to the North due to lack of essential services (such as abortion). Therefore, we try and create messages that Women deserve a Legal Code that guarantees Basic Essential Services. 

We need messages that do not centre doctors and Bio-Medical systems but instead narratives that lift up community care and organising. We need to move beyond “Safe Abortion” that only features clinics and doctors– as much as we dont want clandestine abortions— we know that the majority of safe abortions happen in homes with a friend, eating an arepa and in a more “safe space”. 

 Any law for abortion is a law for control of bodies/reproduction. We need to question any laws around abortion– but need to understand what is the kind of legislation we need in place of it that guarantees Dignified Lives. 

Community Care and Feminist Networks:

Many more intergenerational dialogues (like this one where Regina is almost 60, Sara has been working since early 200s and then Genesis since the last 6-8 years.)

There are various platforms, networks at the local and regional level that we continue to articulate ourselves in. We just need to be careful on security as the infiltration from the authoritarian regime is high and common. There are so many laws that can help the powers that be arrest or criminalise us. There is a law whereby it is legal in Honduras to listen in to your telephone conversations (Ley de Escucha), there are laws that do not let us gather in bigger groups..so we need to continue to meet face-to-face  and 1:1 most of the time, despite COVID. When working on accompanying abortions, we have to gather with protocols that guarantee security with all of this in mind. Secure communication for accompaniment networks is very important and a major challenge for us.

In addition, since street protests are the norms for us. We need to be very ready to take care of ourselves but also not making us paranoid. Having global connections is important to make sure that it is possible to amplify messages if someone is targetted due to protesting. 

As migrant women, a definition of community care is important as it is always new “community” that we are making. Having networks of trusted people who we work with is very important, as we cannot bring down the patriarchal, neo-liberal monster alone. 

We need to create alliances that do not try to centralise everything in the Capital cities, but to have alliances that are strong in rural and sub-regional levels. We need to have a territorial perspective, that understands the different dynamics that people face in our regions/countries.