LATIN AMERICA: The fight against the criminalisation of abortion goes on

By Daina Beth Solomon & Cassandra Garrison

 

Reuters (01.12.2020) – https://reut.rs/3orDvUe – Several weeks pregnant and about to start a job away from home, Lupita Ruiz had no doubts about wanting to end her pregnancy, despite knowing she could face jail time for having an abortion under a law in her state of Chiapas in southern Mexico.

 

She asked friends for help until she found a doctor two hours from her town who agreed to do it in secret.

 

Five years later, lawmakers in Chiapas are set to consider an initiative to halt prosecutions of women who terminate their pregnancies, part of a movement sweeping Latin America to loosen some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws.

 

Several out of more than 20 Latin American nations ban abortion outright, including El Salvador, which has sentenced some women to up to 40 years in prison. Most countries, including Brazil, the region’s most populous, allow abortion only in specific circumstances, such as rape or health risk to the mother.

 

Just Uruguay and Cuba allow elective abortions.

 

In Mexico, a patchwork of state restrictions apply, but the debate is shifting, Ruiz said.

 

“When someone talked about abortion, they were shushed,” said the 27-year-old activist, who helped draft the Chiapas initiative. “Now I can sit down to eat a tamale and have a coffee and talk with my mom and my grandma about abortion, without anyone telling me to be quiet.”

 

Change is palpable across the predominantly Roman Catholic region. A new Argentine president proposed legalization last month, Chilean activists are aiming to write broader reproductive rights into a new constitution, and female lawmakers in Mexico are resisting abortion bans.

 

The push can be traced to Argentina’s pro-abortion protests in 2018 by as many as one million women to back a legalization bill that only narrowly failed to pass – in Pope Francis’s home country.

 

Catalina Martinez, director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy organization, said Argentina’s example inspired protests across Latin America.

 

“It was an awakening,” she said.

 

Outrage at worsening gender violence in Latin America, where the number of femicides has doubled in five years, has also spread awareness of the abortion rights movement and fueled demands for recognition of women’s rights in a conservative, male-dominated society.

 

“Women are finally understanding that they are not separate issues,” said Catalina Calderon, director for campaigns and advocacy programs at the Women’s Equality Center. “It’s the fact that you agree that we women are in control of our bodies, our decisions, our lives.”

 

The rise of social media has afforded women opportunities to bypass establishment-controlled media and bring attention to their stories, Calderon said.

 

“Now they’re out there for the public to discuss and for the women to react, and say: ‘This does not work. We need to do something’,” Calderon said.

 

As in the United States, where conservatives have made gains in restricting a woman’s right to an abortion, there is pushback in Latin America against the calls for greater liberalization.

 

Brazil, under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, is making it even harder for women to abort.

 

The Argentine Episcopal Conference has said it does not want to debate abortion during the coronavirus crisis, and alluded to comments by the Pope urging respect for those who are “not yet useful,” including fetuses.

 

Yet trust in the Catholic Church, which believes life begins at conception, is fading, with many Latin Americans questioning its moral legitimacy because of sexual abuse by priests.

 

Spreading ‘green wave’

 

Argentina could be first up for sweeping change, with a bill submitted to Congress by center-left President Alberto Fernandez seeking to legalize elective abortions.

 

Approval for legalization has risen eight percentage points since 2014, according to an August Ipsos poll, with support split nearly evenly between those who favor elective abortion and those who are for it only in certain circumstances.

 

“The dilemma we must overcome is whether abortions are performed clandestinely or in the Argentine health system,” Fernandez said.

 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a U.S.-based reproductive health research organization, an estimated 29% of pregnancies in Latin America and the Caribbean from 2015 to 2019 ended in abortion, encompassing 5.4 million women. The abortions are often clandestine, so figures are hard to determine.

 

The mass demonstrations in Argentina two years ago, known as the “green wave” protests, have reverberated.

 

Since mid-2018, lawmakers in Mexico have filed more than 40 proposals to end punishment for abortion, according to Mexican reproductive rights group GIRE.

 

In Chiapas, the de-criminalization effort is the first of its kind since a brief period in the 1990s when abortion was legalized during the left-wing Zapatista rebellion.

 

Although Chiapas does not on paper punish abortion with prison, it can jail women for the “killing” of their infants.

 

With Mexico’s first leftist government in a century in power, national lawmakers are considering two initiatives to open up restrictions and strip away criminal punishments from places like Sonora state, where abortion can be punished by up to six years in prison.

 

Only two federal entities, Mexico City and Oaxaca, allow elective abortions.

 

Wendy Briceno, a Sonoran lawmaker who has backed a nationwide legalization bill, said the initiatives have a good chance to pass if the debate centers on women’s health, especially given rising outrage over femicides.

 

In Chile, activists are celebrating a vote in October to write a new constitution as a chance to expand a 2017 law that permitted abortion to save a mother’s life, in cases of rape, or if the fetus is not viable.

 

Colombia, where the constitutional court has agreed to consider a petition to remove abortion from the penal code, could set an example, said Anita Pena, director of Chilean reproductive rights group Corporacion Miles.

 

Activists agree there is still a long way to go, with restrictive laws entrenched in many countries.

 

To Briceno, Brazil’s shift to the right under Bolsonaro, who has vowed to veto any pro-abortion bills, was a reminder to push even harder for abortion rights.

 

“No fight is ever finished,” she said.

Photo: Pro-abortion activist Lupita Ruiz poses for a photo during an interview with Reuters, in Mexico City, Mexico. November 11, 2020. REUTERS/Toya Sarno Jordan.




Women reportedly subjected to forced gynecological exams in Qatar

Policies criminalize and punish pregnant women outside of wedlock.

 

By Rothna Begum

 

HRW (27.10.2020) – https://bit.ly/3egMN1H – On October 2, Qatari authorities removed 13 women from an Australia-bound Qatar Airways flight and subjected them to forced gynecological examinations after a premature baby was found abandoned in a toilet at Doha’s Hamad International Airport according to an Australian news report this week.

 

Airport officials said the infant is “safe” and being cared for in Qatar. The media reported that airport officials said they took action after “medical professionals expressed concern” about the health of the mother and “requested she be located.” But such actions would demonstrate the opposite of respect for women’s health and dignity.

 

The media reports say these women were given no information and did not have an opportunity to provide informed consent. Forced gynecological examinations can amount to sexual assault. Media also reported that authorities removed and examined additional women from the airport and other flights.

 

The Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs said she is expecting a report from Qatari authorities sometime this week.

 

The reported invasion of these women’s privacy is rightfully making headlines. But the circumstances that might have led a woman to leave the baby in the airport bathroom should be too.

 

In Qatar and across the Gulf region, sexual relations outside of wedlock are criminalized, meaning a pregnant woman who is not married, even if the pregnancy is the result of rape, may end up facing arrest and prosecution. Hospitals are required to report women pregnant outside of wedlock to the authorities. Abortion is also criminalized with limited exceptions including that women must have their husband’s consent. Low-paid migrant women, like the more than 100,000 migrant domestic workers, in Qatar are disproportionately impacted by such policies.

 

The alleged actions of the Qatari authorities  on October 2 would have failed many women – the unknown woman apparently forced to give birth in an airport toilet, unable to ask for assistance with her labor or on what to do with the baby, and the multiple women reportedly pulled off the plane for examinations.

 

Qatar should prohibit forced gynecological exams and investigate and bring to account any individuals who authorized any demeaning treatment. It should also decriminalize sex outside of wedlock. Authorities should ensure that pregnant people, regardless of their marital status, have access to quality sexual and reproductive health care and choices, including access to contraception, abortion, prenatal care, obstetric care, and adoption services without fearing arrest or prison.

Photo: Airplanes are seen parked at the Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, June 16, 2017.  © 2017 AP Photo/Malak Harb.




U.S. Christian groups spent $280m fighting LGBT+ rights, abortion overseas

Right-wing U.S. groups have put more than $280 million into campaigns against LGBT+ rights and abortion worldwide since 2007, almost $90 million of which focused on Europe.

 

By Rachel Savage

 

Thomson Reuters Foundation (27.10.2020) – https://bit.ly/326bgSf – Right-wing U.S. groups have put more than $280 million into campaigns against LGBT+ rights and abortion worldwide since 2007, almost $90 million of which focused on Europe, according to a report on Tuesday.

 

Many of the 28 groups – most of which are Christian – have close links with U.S. President Donald Trump, who is campaigning for re-election on Nov. 3, investigative website openDemocracy found, amid the rising popularity of the far-right in Europe.

 

“These findings show how Trump-linked groups have built a frightening global empire,” Mary Fitzgerald, openDemocracy’s editor-in-chief, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.

 

One of the main groups is the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), whose chief counsel Jay Sekulow is Trump’s personal lawyer. It supported a ruling in Poland last week banning abortion in cases of foetal defects, the report said.

 

The ACLJ – shown through its financial records to have spent $18 million globally since 2007, 80% of it in Europe – did not respond to a request for comment.

 

Another major player is the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), whose international arm filed legal briefs against same-sex marriage in Italy and backed a Northern Irish bakery that refused to make a cake with “Support Gay Marriage” on it.

 

It also opposed same-sex adoption in Austria and trans women in France seeking to legally change their gender by submitting arguments in cases at the European Court of Human Rights.

 

“ADF International is a global human rights organisation that protects fundamental freedoms and promotes the inherent dignity of all people,” a spokeswoman for ADF International said in emailed comments.

 

“Rather than engaging with our arguments, OpenDemocracy seeks to shut down debate by launching what is nothing more than a smear campaign.”

 

The openDemocracy investigation highlighted a lack of transparency among U.S. church organisations, which do not have to pay taxes, reveal their funders or how they spend their money overseas.

 

The biggest spender was the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which poured $96 million into influencing foreign laws and citizens, although its spending is unknown since 2015 when it was reclassified as a church association.

 

Its president Franklin Graham – the son of the U.S. evangelical preacher – has praised the LGBT+ rights record of Russia, where homophobic violence has risen since the adoption in 2013 of a ban on “gay propaganda” towards minors.

 

The association did not respond to a request for comment.

 

Africa was the second most popular destination for anti-LGBT+ efforts. Several of the groups supported the death penalty for gay sex in Uganda, known as the “Kill The Gays” bill, which was overturned by the country’s constitutional court in 2014.

 

“Trump-linked U.S. evangelicals, funded by secret donors, are exporting homophobia around the world,” British LGBT+ activist Peter Tatchell said in emailed comments.

 




Polish court outlaws almost all abortions

Protests will be difficult to organize due to the worsening coronavirus outbreak.

 

By Wojciech Kość

 

POLITICO (22.10.2020) – https://politi.co/3dXUedS – A top Polish court on Thursday tightened one of the EU’s toughest abortion regulations by ruling that abortions undertaken because of fetal defects are unconstitutional.

 

The ruling means that Polish women may have abortions only in cases of rape or incest, or if the life of the woman is endangered.

 

The abortion issue has been a minefield for the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party. It’s under pressure from far-right and ultra-Catholic groups to crack down even harder, but that risks outraging Polish women. A legislative effort to restrict abortions in 2016 sent hundreds of thousands of women onto the streets and prompted a quick retreat on the part of the government.

 

By turning to the Constitutional Tribunal, the PiS avoids setting off a legislative fight, but the opposition, women’s groups and many European organizations denounced the decision.

 

Street protests will be difficult to organize, however, thanks to Poland’s worsening coronavirus outbreak. The whole country is set to be declared a “red zone” on Friday.

 

“Removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in Poland amounts to a ban & violates human rights. Today’s ruling of the Constitutional [Tribunal] means underground/abroad abortions for those who can afford & even greater ordeal for all others. A sad day for Women’s Rights,” tweeted Dunja Mijatović , the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights.

 

Poland only has about 1,100 legal abortions a year, mostly carried out under the fetal abnormality clause, according the Federation for Women and Family Planning, known as Federa, a women’s rights NGO.

 

“I was really hoping this wouldn’t happen. Women’s rights to live healthy lives have just been swept aside,” said Krystyna Kacpura, head of Federa.

 

“It doesn’t mean there won’t be abortions now,” she added. “It means that poorer women will have abortions risking their lives and health and the better-off will pay for terminations abroad in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, or the Netherlands. Abortion clinics there must be overjoyed today.”

 

She estimated that the true number of abortions by Polish women is between 100,000 to 150,000 a year.

 

The tribunal ruled on a motion, filed last year by over 100 conservative lawmakers, asking the court to find that abortion on the grounds of fetal abnormality is anti-constitutional because it violates a child’s right to be free of discrimination for health reasons.

 

“We are asking for the right to life of everyone, no matter their sex,” Bartłomiej Wróblewski, a PiS MP, told the tribunal on Thursday. “We don’t think that it’s correct to say that this is being done against women. This is being in part in the name of women.”

 

Poland’s conservatives rejoiced at the ruling.

 

Jerzy Kwaśniewski of the Catholic organization Ordo Iuris, which has campaigned intensely for the ban, called the decision “a great day.”

 

The ruling also risks worsening already fraught relations with Brussels, as the legality of the tribunal’s makeup remains disputed.

 

The court is supposed to rule on the constitutionality of laws passed by parliament. However, some of the justices were appointed by President Andrzej Duda in violation of the Polish constitution.

 

The tribunal’s head, Julia Przyłębska, is a personal friend of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński. Only two of the court’s 13 judges opposed the verdict.

 

The status of the court has been one in a large number of points of friction between the Polish government and the European institutions.

Photo: Activists demonstrate in support of abortion rights in Warsaw on October 22, 2020 | Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images.




Burial of aborted fetuses causes outrage in Italy

Women take legal action over fetus graves marked with mothers’ names in so-called Fields of Angels.

 

By Hannah Roberts

 

POLITICO (15.10.2020) – https://politi.co/2HitsR9 – At the Prima Porta cemetery, hundreds of white wooden crosses mark the burial plots of aborted fetuses. On each cross is written the name of the woman who terminated the pregnancy.

 

Until recently, the existence of the cemetery was unknown to many of the women, who say they consented neither to a burial nor to being named. Now that they do know, more than 100 have come together to pursue legal action demanding those responsible be identified.

 

In Italy, where women still struggle to access abortion four decades after legislation permitting the procedure was passed, the discovery of the burial site has resulted in an outcry. It has also focused attention on dozens of similar sites across Italy — known as “Fields of Angels” and created with the involvement of anti-abortion, ultra-conservative associations.

 

For opponents, such burial grounds stigmatize abortion and undermine the legitimate choices of women at a time when conservative groups globally are attempting to push back reproductive rights won decades ago.

 

The Prima Porta site stands out because it names the women.

 

Its existence came to light earlier this month after Marta Loi made inquiries about what happened to her fetus. Writing on Facebook, she described the “anger and anguish” at discovering a burial plot with her name on it, and that “without my consent, others have buried my child with a cross, a Christian symbol, which does not belong to me.”

 

Silvana Agatone, president and founder of LAIGA, the Italian association for doctors who carry out abortions, told POLITICO that the burials were “the most serious violation of privacy. Many women do not tell relatives or friends about the procedure.”

 

“It is a way of punishing the women by creating a sense of guilt,” she said. “To have a tomb with your name on implies that you are as good as dead.”

 

Monica Cirinnà, a senator in the Italian parliament, told POLITICO: “Every woman who terminates a pregnancy has the right to choose if and how to bury the fetus and according to which ritual. These are deeply personal decisions that cannot be brought into question.”

 

The issue is a reminder of the global pushback against women’s rights, Cirinnà said. “Even today, women’s bodies are battlefields. Attacks on women’s freedom, regarding the choice to become or not to become mothers, are now coming from everywhere, continuously undermined by small, silent but insidious procedures like this one.”

 

Medical objections

 

Although abortion has been legal in Italy since 1978, it has been fiercely opposed from the start by an alliance of religious and political conservatives. There are similar situations in many other countries, but campaigners say the extent to which the Catholic Church remains embedded in Italian institutions means it has been particularly effective in frustrating the implementation of abortion rights.

 

The majority of doctors qualified to carry out an abortion refuse to do so on ethical grounds — that’s an average of 69 percent across the country, rising to 80 percent in the south, according to the health ministry. That means access is limited and delays common.

 

Junior doctors often fear their career will be damaged if they don’t join the ranks of objectors, and department heads refuse to hire non-objectors, said Agatone.

 

The rise among Italian doctors of conscientious objectors does not constitute a problem, according to the health ministry, because the number of abortions is falling while the number of objectors remains stable.

 

Elisa Ercoli, president of Differenza Donna, an advocacy group representing 130 of the Prima Porta women, said the Fields of Angels “are emblematic of the obstacles to women exercising their right to an abortion in Italy.”

 

“The level of objectors is so high that the health care guaranteed by law is not accessible,” she said.

 

Most of the women, Ercoli added, had degrading experiences in hospital, with some medical staff refusing to help them even though they were in pain: “These women feel betrayed by the state. There was a total violation of their legal rights and privacy.”

 

According to a 1990 law, women can request the aborted fetus and bury it within 24 hours. But if they don’t, the local health service is responsible for arranging transport and burial. Over the past two decades, Catholic associations have increasingly stepped in, relieving the local health authority of the cost and trouble of burying aborted fetuses.

 

The most prominent group doing this, Difendere la vita con Maria, has 3,000 members and says it has carried out over 200,000 burials. It solicits donations for funding on its website, which says: “For only €20 you can bear the cost of burying an unborn child.”

 

Spokesman Stefano di Battista said the group does not work in Rome at present. But in the cities that it does work, it collects the fetuses, usually once a month, from the hospitals with which it has agreements, before burying them after a short ceremony. The group never identifies the women, he said, adding: “Anonymity is a guiding principle for us. We do not do this practice to battle against abortion rights. We are not interested in crusades. We believe it is at the basis of civilization to bury with dignity and piety the children that never came into the world.”

 

Church ties to the right

 

Catholic associations might be responsible for the Fields of Angels, but they wouldn’t have been able to proceed without political sympathizers at regional and national levels.

 

In 2007 in Lombardy, a center-right/conservative administration introduced new regulations stipulating that all fetuses had to be buried in specific areas within cemeteries. Le Marche and Campania have approved similar laws.

 

Last year, an attempt to introduce similar legislation by the hard-right Brothers of Italy party in Lazio was defeated. The liberal Italian Radicals party condemned it as “psychological violence against women.”

 

“It is in [the political right’s] nature to try to bring back a patriarchal culture, before women’s liberation,” said Ercoli. “But it is not just about political parties, it is a larger cultural discussion. Since 1978 women have been fighting to try to win the actual implementation of the rules.”

 

It is not clear who bears responsibility for the naming of the women at the Prima Porta cemetery. The section where the fetuses are buried contains only those aborted after the 20th week of gestation, when the procedure is permitted only on health grounds, according to Agatone.

 

The hospital involved, San Camillo, said responsibility for transport management and burial lies with Ama, a company that manages cemeteries on behalf of the city of Rome. Ama said in a statement that it had no contact with patients and followed the rules of the health system.

 

Italy’s privacy watchdog has opened an investigation into the burials, and Health Minister Roberto Speranza has been called to speak about the case in parliament.

 

Politicians on the left are pushing for a change in the law. A group of leftist councilors in the Lazio region proposed a new regional law on transport and burial of fetuses, with clear consent required from the woman. The current law is too ambiguous, said Councilor Marta Bonafoni: “It must not leave any space for doubt or uncertainty.”

 

But for some, the cemetery case has merely highlighted the need for more general reform. The obstacles to abortion have been tolerated because it is a woman’s problem, said Ercoli. “After 40 years the struggle is not over. We must be alert and we must be united.”

Photo credit: IPA/Sipa USA.