Abortion in Venezuela: An Urgent Debate

With authorities in the process of writing of a new constitution, Venezuelan activist groups have upped pressure to end archaic legislation banning abortion.

By VTActual
Short URL

abortion_cover.jpg

Feminist protests read “Every year 47,000 women die due to unsafe abortions,” “I am in charge of my body,” and “Free abortion to prevent death.” (VTActual)
Feminist protests read “Every year 47,000 women die due to unsafe abortions,” “I am in charge of my body,” and “Free abortion to prevent death.” (VTActual)

The female body is a fundamental space where oppression of women is enacted. To deny women the possibility of deciding over their own bodies is the consummation of patriarchal domination, whose greatest desire is to strip women of their character as a subject and to treat them like an object. Existing power structures were built on this premise and have developed fanatical control mechanisms that abrogate the sovereignty of women over their lives.

In the mid-19th Century, the Church forbade the use or the sharing of information about contraceptive methods in nations such as Spain and the United States. This looked to achieve the absolute restriction of the right to decide how many sons and daughters one may have, and when.

The ideological question did not separate sexuality from reproduction. This approach, which today may seem absurd, remained standard until 1978 in Spain. However, this restriction did not prevent women from using contraceptives, but access to them was exclusive to those who could afford it on the illegal market.

The prohibition of contraceptives has not been the only mechanism used to prevent women from deciding the number of children to have, or when to do so. The outlawing of abortion, punishing with imprisonment women who voluntarily have one, is another restrictive measure that deprives women's will over their own reproduction.

The right to choose

Since the beginnings of the 20th Century, the movement for the emancipation of women has stated that a voluntary interruption of pregnancy is a fundamental right and a necessary condition to achieve equality. To develop this idea, VTActual.com met with women's’ organizations in order to hear their arguments.

In the next section, the feminist lawyer and spokeswoman for the Foundation of Gender with Class, Gisela Jiménez, sets out the reasons why she considers that sovereignty over one’s body should be a fundamental human right for women:

As was the case with contraceptives, the outlawing of abortion does not do away with its existence. It is a daily reality, which is done in a safe way for those who can afford it. Poor women who cannot afford private medical methods also abort, but under precarious conditions. These unhealthy practices often cause death or irreversible damage to their lives. This is what is happening in our country. This is how Jimenez describes it:

What do the laws say about abortion in Venezuela?

The Venezuelan Penal Code establishes punitive measures against women who induce abortion.

Article 430 of this document dictates:

A woman who intentionally aborts, using means employed by herself or by a third party with their consent, shall be punished with prison for six months to two years.

The only exception to this mandate is mentioned in article 433:

A person carrying out an abortion will not incur any penalty if it is an indispensable measure to save the life of the mother.

The intention of this rule to restrict the right of women to decide over their bodies, and not the pretense of protecting the fetus in formation, is shown in the following paragraph that refers to the "abandonment of children or others unable to provide for their health or safety,” where a smaller penalty than that for an abortion is established for those who abandon a child.

Article 435. One who abandons a child under twelve years old (...), if the abandoned child was under the care of the offender, shall be punished by prison for forty-five days to 15 months.

More notoriously:

Article 437. When the offender commits the aforementioned offence with a newborn child not yet registered with the authorities within the legal period so as to save their own honour, or that of their wife or their mother, of the offspring's, of their adopted daughter or their sister, the penalty shall be reduced in the proportion of a sixth to a third, and the holding time shall be counted as prison time.

Although this law was ratified by the National Assembly in 2005, the concerning articles which restrict the voluntary interruption of pregnancy contradict those of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, which dictates:

Article 76. (...) Couples have the right to decide freely and responsibly the number of children they wish to conceive and to have access to the information and means that will ensure that they exercise this right. The State (...) will ensure comprehensive family planning services based on scientific and ethical values.

The Constitution is above everything else

Faced with this divergence, the constitutional mandate takes precedence, according to the Magna Carta which guarantees this in the chapter referring to its protection, where it is left clear that:

In a case of incompatibility between this Constitution and a law or any other legal standard, one must apply the constitutional provisions corresponding to the courts in any case (…).

In the same paragraph, the responsibility of nullifying laws opposed to the Bolivarian Constitution is vested to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ). Female judges and magistrates of the TSJ have the right and duty to speak out on this matter.

Specifically, what is the proposal of the feminist movement to grant women the right to voluntarily interrupt a pregnancy? We asked lawyer Gisela Jiménez and this was her response:

It is important to mention that, regarding the right to decide, the women's movement has achieved important legislative victories in Venezuela. Since 2006, forced sterilization and the practice of non-voluntary and unnecessary c-sections are defined as violent crimes against women, according to the Organic Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence.

VTActual also contacted Laura Franco, a lawyer and activist of the Lydda Franco Popular Feminist Movement (MFP), who showed us some interesting facts about abortion as a public health problem in the Latin American region:

What has been the Venezuelan reality concerning abortion?

Venezuela entered the 21st century with great breakthroughs in the field of human rights, equality and non-discrimination.

It wasn't just about proposals which found a place in the drafting of a project for a new country, but rather it had to do with the implementation of policies that generated greater protection of the living conditions of vulnerable groups and the transfer of power to sectors of the historically oppressed population.

Regarding the right of women to decide over their bodies, the Bolivarian revolution has generated a favorable social environment. For several years, the Barrio Adentro[1] Mission endowed contraceptive methods and information to women in the poorer sectors. In addition, the incorporation of women in different areas of development, such as education, sports, culture, and politics played an important role. Such a guarantee of participation and prominence has created the ideal stage for the dispute for women’s absolute sovereignty over their bodies.

abortion_1.jpg

Banner reading “contraceptives to prevent, legal abortion to not die” held by a pro-abortion campaigner in Venezuela (VTActual)
Banner reading “contraceptives to prevent, legal abortion to not die” held by a pro-abortion campaigner in Venezuela (VTActual)

But the economic siege has generated a huge setback. The public health system does not currently guarantee free access to contraceptive methods. The absence of a liberating and quality sexual education policy has meant that the younger generation maintains risky and often violent sexual practices, which end up generating sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies at an early age.

In this regard, we talked with Franco, who shared her reflections with us:[2]

Venezuela has outstanding challenges

In the year 2014, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women – signed by Venezuela – already warned about conditions in our country with respect to maternal mortality, unplanned pregnancies and deaths due to clandestine abortions of the poorest women.

In its concluding observations in the seventh and eighth periodic reports on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, it points out:

"The committee is deeply concerned about:

(a) the high rate of maternal mortality despite the measures taken to reduce it;

(b) the elevated number of teenage pregnancies, many of which cause maternal mortality;

(c) information received about health services, including services for sexual and reproductive health, treatment against cancer, and birth control, as well as emergency contraception, which are not always available or adequate;

(d) the restrictive legislation on abortion which forces women to resort to abortion in unsafe conditions, often damaging the health of the pregnant woman and sometimes causing death.

The committee urges the State (Venezuela) to:

(a) Intensify efforts to reduce maternal mortality by adopting a comprehensive strategy that provides for the effective implementation of (...) a mechanism for monitoring and appropriate services for sexual and reproductive health, including the provision of emergency contraceptives, as well as prenatal care, care during and after childbirth, and post-abortion care.

(b) intensify efforts to reduce teenage pregnancies, in particular ensuring that the children have information and education about health and sexual and reproductive rights that are appropriate for their age;

(c) amend its legislation to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape, incest, danger to the mother's health and risk of severe malformations of the foetus, eliminating the punitive measures for women who undergo this practice and ensuring the availability of pregnancy termination services.”

abortion_2.jpg

Campaigning material reads “16% of maternal deaths in Venezuela are due to unsafe abortions.” (VTActual)
Campaigning material reads “16% of maternal deaths in Venezuela are due to unsafe abortions.” (VTActual)

These observations and demands are no small thing. Venezuela signed these international commitments more than 30 years ago, and has the duty to adjust its political and legislative action to comply with its mandate. Next November, the state is due to offer a report to this world body on requests that were sent four years ago. Faced with this situation, lawyer Laura Franco informs us:

Clandestine abortions affect maternal mortality

It is important to clarify that deaths caused by the practice of unsafe abortion are included in maternal mortality rates. Despite the fact that in Venezuela there are no specific statistics on the subject, the standard around the world has been that, in countries where it is penalised, complications due to poorly practiced abortions constitute a significant percentage of the maternal mortality rate.

Concerning the debt of Venezuelan institutions regarding statistical data, as well as studies and action on abortion as a public health problem, Franco made a call to the competent authorities:

The interruption of pregnancy is a direct result of a public policy that is unable to provide the information, awareness and necessary means for the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and the exercise of an autonomous and safe sexuality.

The scientific journal The Lancet in its study entitled “Abortion Incidence from 1990 to 2014: Global, Regional and Subregional Levels and Trends” points out that according to the analyzed statistical data, "The level of unmet contraceptive needs is higher in countries with more restrictive abortion laws than in countries with more open laws, and this contributes to the incidence of abortion in countries with restrictive laws."

abortion_3.jpg

The banner reads: “The rich abort, the poor die.” (VTActual)
The banner reads: “The rich abort, the poor die.” (VTActual)

This shows that the more difficult the access to contraceptives is, the greater the number of abortions that will be carried out. Since countries that criminalize abortion do not have to pay for it out of their public health budget, they are less concerned about its prevention. The higher the number of clandestine abortions, the higher the maternal mortality rate and deaths generated by this practice.

The experience of the Latin American region is a reflection of this. This was reported by Laura Franco in her statement:[3]

Reality hits hard. Abortion exceeds any moral argument and is positioned as a fact of everyday life, and a health problem, of great influence on the life and the sovereignty of women. The Venezuelan social and political context seems to have exhausted the time limits and the debate becomes inescapable. The state will be judged by history for its action or lack thereof.

Notes

[1] This is a Cuban-Venezuelan public health program which looked to set up basic health clinics throughout the country, with a focus on previously unattended rural and urban barrio zones.

[2] Rodriguez has since left the National Constituent Assembly and currently occupies the post of executive vice president of government. The current president of the Constituent Assembly is Diosdado Cabello.

[3] Since the original publication of this article, Argentina has also taken moves to legalize abortion, but historic legislation on the issue was blocked by the country’s senate in August.

Translation and transcription by Venezuelanalysis.com

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Contributions as of 12/08/2019

$10,000
7.9% $788

Break the media blockade!
Venezuelanalysis is Venezuela's only independent, 100% reader-funded English media outlet. Please donate to keep us online in 2020!

Donate now