In Venezuela, more people are opposed to abortion than they are to violence in a relationship. 87% of Venezuelans would criticise a 17 year old teenager deciding to get an abortion, according to a GISXXI survey conducted in November last year, while 81% reject aggression between partners. The first figure is just slightly less than those who identify as Christian (71% of Venezuelans are Catholic, 17% Evangelical, 0.6% Jewish, and 8% either agnostic or atheist) which is not just a reflection of how strong an influence the Church still has in Venezuela, but also of how small the gains have been for women in this revolution in terms of sexual rights.
Abortion is illegal, expensive, and risky in Venezuela
In Venezuela, abortion is only legal when the woman’s life is in danger. In situations where it is necessary to preserve her health or mental state, where she has been raped, if the foetus has birth defects, or for economic reasons, abortion is not legal. The penalty on paper is six months to two years prison, though in practice few women are actually “caught”. The unprescribed but real punishments experienced by women facing an unwanted pregnancy however include social condemnation, reinforced by its illegality, secrecy, the monetary cost of abortion, and the health risks if it can’t be paid for.
An illegal abortion with a medical practitioner these days in Venezuela costs around 4-6,000bs, or 2-3 months minimum wage, as doctors take advantage of the illegal status to charge inflated black market prices for what is a fairly simple procedure. Some women pay it, but the vast majority of working class women cannot, and perform the abortion themselves without medical help or even moral support from family. According to a study by the Central University of Venezuela, 16% of maternal deaths (of women aged 12 to 49) here are caused by complications resulting from clandestine abortions, making them the second highest cause of death of women in that age range, higher than cancer, accidents, or suicides and murders. Venezuelan feminist leader Gioconda Mata claims the figure is closer to 30%. Because private medical centres obviously aren’t going to publish the number of illegal abortions they perform, it’s impossible to say the overall number of annual abortions, but the numbers of women resorting to unassisted (cheaper) abortions means the issue is also a class one that disproportionately affects poorer women.
Influence of the Church
Since its arrival on the continent over 500 years ago, the Church has been one of the main forces behind the demonisation of abortion, trivialising a woman’s protagonism in society and her right to a full life in which she is sovereign.
Cuban doctor Digna Mayo Abad described how abortion was a common practice “many centuries before our time”, where; in “patriarchal primitive peoples’” families, the head could sell and even kill his children, even before they were born. In that situation, abortion wasn’t punishable. The foetus was also seen as part of a woman’s bowels, but since she was inferior, the father or family head still exercised control over the foetus. Likewise in Ancient Greece, the foetus was considered part of the mother. According to Abad, “the repression of abortion began in Rome”.
Two hundred years after the birth of Jesus Christ, the Church enacted measures against women who committed abortion- including the death penalty, physical torture, and exile -based on the idea that women didn’t have the right to rob their husbands of their descendents. However, the idea that the foetus is an “innocent being” was only adopted by the Church in 1312, as before that, it wasn’t believed to have a soul, so abortion wasn’t considered murder. However, theologists decided a soul inhabited the foetus from 40 days of conception in the case of a male and 90 days in the case of a female foetus. In 1533 (just 11 years after Spain began to colonise Venezuela, and just a few years after it had already managed to completely devastate the indigenous population of Venezuela’s Margarita and Cubagua Islands) it was decided the soul entered the foetus around mid-pregnancy, when movements could be felt. Finally, in 1588 Pope Sixtus V proclaimed that all abortions are criminal and punishable by excommunication.
A Brazilian Catholic nun, Ivone Gebara, the first person of her standing to identify with feminism in Latin America, said, “The dogma of abortion has been manufactured over the centuries. Who wrote that the birth of children can’t be controlled? There have been priests, celibate men, closed-up in their world where they live comfortably…they don’t have a wife or mother in law and they don’t worry about a sick child, some of them are even rich…like that, it’s easy to condemn abortion”. According to Gebara, a society where men are free of responsibility and women receive all the blame is “an abortive, macho, and excluding society”.
This dogma of abortion dominates the Venezuelan mentality on the issue, with most people here who are against abortion using virtually identical language to the Church to explain their opinions. Abortion is “pre-natal murder”, “taking the life of an innocent and defenceless human being”; with the quality of the life of the pregnant woman rarely part of the discussion. This is despite the fact that while 90% of Venezuelans in a GIS XXI March 2011 survey said they were “believers”, only a small proportion are regular church goers and many Venezuelans reject the Pope and the largely opposition role played by the Church here.
This shows that patriarchal culture also plays a key role in attitudes towards women’s sexuality (as well as towards sexual diversity, though a lower percentage; 69% of Venezuelans, rejected the idea of sex between the same gender in the GIS XXI survey), reinforcing those aspects of Church doctrine, while leaving others more open.
The discourse around abortion, and the little debate that does happen, revolves around the supposed rights of the foetus and basically ignores any rights of the woman to control her own body and make decisions over her own life. Prohibiting abortion means that women are sometimes forced to have children (or more children) against their will or economic means, though their male partner is not at all obligated to contribute towards the care of those children, and it is culturally common and accepted for him not to. Biological fathers often decide not to participate in caring, or leave altogether- around 50% of mothers are single mothers in Venezuela.
Likewise, while the government has made a valiant effort to promote more sexual education, including printing pamphlets, school and education mission based book series, and distributing condoms to the Barrio Adentro medical units, most discourse and education still focuses on teaching women and female teenagers to be sexually responsible rather than seeing sex and conception as a mutual act, with mutual responsibility, between both genders.
Male leaders of this revolution, including president Chavez, as well as women’s movements have pushed for great women’s participation in all aspects of politics (from the ministries to the communal councils) and in some aspects of the economy (with more women in the army and leading trade union movements such as UNETE, more female police, fire-fighters, doctors, and so on, though certain professions such as building or cleaning still completely adhere to the old ideas about gender roles) and the revolution is seeing a significant change in this respect.
However, the government has made no attempt to promote women’s sexual rights. Women’s bodies are still largely male property or public property, with their use in advertising as rife as ever, and even, in one case, used to publicise Chavez’s current electoral campaign. An image of a woman from her navel to her upper legs, wearing red underpants with the Chavez campaign slogan, has been passed around Facebook. It seems to have been made by PSUV campaigners, though it’s hard to be sure. Of course this doesn’t compare at all to opposition candidate Henrique Capriles’ organising of a mass meeting of women last week, which he formally and publically dubbed a “panty-thon”.
This idea that a woman’s body is public property supports the notion that when she is pregnant, her own needs are secondary to the supposed public desire to protect the “life” growing inside her. It means the state, the church, and the penal code (the latter written by men only and of course in the case of the Church, run by men only) have the right to tell a woman what to do with her body.
The Feminist Spider group and the Network of Women’s Collectives in Venezuela made a declaration in September 2010 in which they argued for the right of women to determine the number of children they’ll have, and to sovereignty over their body. Such rights “imply recognising women as social subjects, and as people with autonomy and moral agents capable of deciding if they want to be mothers or not, as well as the number of children and the time between births…”.
“All women want a planned pregnancy, a joyful and a safe one, not one forced by laws or obligated by ideological imperatives full of prejudice and hypocrisy… in that sense the Venezuelan state has a debt to women and their dignity as people,” their statement concluded.
A silenced and taboo issue being gradually brought out into the open by feminist movements
“That almost half the women who live in this country have had to go through this [illegal abortions] is a fact kept quiet,” one anonymous friend told me. “And we have illegal abortions, not because we think they’re great, but because the right conditions aren’t there, you know?”
That illegal abortions and the women who have to go through with them are invisible reinforces the stigma around the issue, even though it is so common. The silence condemns abortion as a disgrace and the lack of information around what is actually involved in an abortion, as well as on the psychological and biological impacts of a forced pregnancy on a woman, makes it hard for alternative views to be formed. Political leaders and the media also either demonise abortion or are silent on the issue, and even many pro-Chavez women’s movements (as distinct to feminist ones) refuse to talk much about their own rights, instead focusing on their support for the government.
It’s true however, that feminist movements have been able to grow because of the general radicalisation and activation of the people in the Bolivarian revolution, and that they have made some small gains in breaking this silence.
The Skirts in Revolution group has provided an abortion advice line since May 2011, where volunteers supply information about abortion options, and how to use, and where to find Misoprostal. Also, the boom in alternative and community radio stations and online media has given the issue somewhat more space, with a daily feminist column in the state run Correo del Orinoco as well.
On the other hand, the feminist television program El Entrompe de Falopio (The Fallopian Challenge ) was wound back from a daily show on Caracas alternative television station Avila and national community station TVes, to twice a week, then once a week, and then cancelled altogether in April this year. The show discussed “hard” or more controversial issues such as transgender politics, female sexuality, and abortion, and according to Mota was an “important conquest”, as such issues had never been visibilised on television before. However, people working on the show reported pressure from “above” to “dress better” and for the hosts to be more “appealing”, and to discuss more “popular” topics.
It’s worth noting though, that the fight for the legalisation of abortion in Venezuela did not start during the revolution, but rather over thirty years ago. Feminist Giovanna Merola published her book In Defense of Abortion in Venezuela in 1979, creating headlines in the media, and becoming a pioneer for the struggle in Latin America. Rosita Caldera also had a weekly column in the private newspaper El Nacional, discussing women’s reproductive rights during the early 1980s. Also around that time, a large meeting of doctors, lawyers, and feminists proposed the legalisation of abortion under certain circumstances (including congenital malformation of the foetus, incest, and rape), but the national congress didn’t approve it.
Laws, the constitution, and lack of guts in an Electoral Revolution
Because this revolution came to power, and in many ways depends on maintaining its collective power through elections, there is the constant dilemma around dividing time and resources between on the ground organising and constructing new social and economic relations, and electoral work (especially right now with the presidential and regional elections coming up). Likewise, there’s a related dilemma between promoting socialist and radical policy or appealing to the commonly held capitalist values in order to obtain more votes. The unpopularity of abortion (and other “radical” issues, such as same sex marriage, anti consumerism, environment before profit etc) means very few elected leaders are prepared to talk about it.
Apart from that, overall feminist consciousness within the PSUV is extremely low, with even most female politicians and political leaders still feeling the need to dress up and make up, and talking about women’s rights only in terms of “equality” (always in the vague sense of the word) and participation. The women’s ministry and missions such as Mothers of the Barrio aim to improve women’s material well being, but do not question the notion that the main thing a woman should aspire to is being a mother.
Further, though it was never voted on, the vast majority of national assembly legislators- both opposition and pro-Chavez- were against the proposed reform to the penal code to decriminalise abortion in 2008, thereby deferring to Christian beliefs over various basic rights outlined in Venezuela’s own 1999 constitution.
Article 76 of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela states, “Motherhood and fatherhood are fully protected, whatever the marital status of the mother or father. Couples have the right to decide freely and responsibly how many children they wish to conceive, and are entitled to access to the information and means necessary to guarantee the exercise of this right.” The constitution also includes the right to free development of personality, the right to privacy, and the right to freedom of cult and religion, meaning the prohibition of abortion is unconstitutional.
Consequences for the revolution and for the feminist movement
While the Bolivarian revolution is challenging some fundamental aspects of capitalism, such as representative democracy and workplace and economic hierarchies, the failure of most forces within it to promote women’s sexual rights and our basic dignity in terms of sovereignty over our lives, our bodies, and the use of our bodies in publicity, is undemocratic. One worries about the revolution being able to move forward, if many are afraid to confront social norms and social vices (such as gender roles, amiguismo or nepotism: achieving things because you know the right people, disorganisation and bureaucracy and so on).
To promote women’s sexual rights would be to radicalise and deepen this revolution, it would empower women further and enable us to in turn participate more fully and enthusiastically. While it’s true that some change will inevitably take longer, especially when challenging norms that have been ingrained over the last five centuries, the dangers of not taking on this issue, and of silencing those movements which try to, can be seen in Nicaragua.
There, many attribute the limited change in gender relations, despite the decisive contribution of women to the revolution, as one of the factors in the eventual win of female opposition candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro over revolutionary FSLN leader Daniel Ortega in 1990. The recent deal between Ortega (re-elected as president in 2007 ) and the Catholic Church to completely criminalise abortion; even when the woman’s life is in danger, in November that year, was key in separating the FSLN from the strong women’s movement, which still sees the prohibition of abortion as part of the Somoza era of exploitation and inequality.
The first step towards women being seen as more than just mothers and bodies, is awareness raising and extensive public debate. This means that we have a responsibility to organise ourselves more, but also that the state and the PSUV should provide greater support to such movements, should not relegate women to merely organising their gender in order to support elections, nor categorise feminist movements as “fringe” and “radical” (as though radical were something bad), should provide the resources for feminist workshops across the country, and should remove the unconstitutional articles from the penal code that make abortion illegal. Eventually it should also, of course, provide accessible and free abortion.