Mariana Garcia-Sojo is a political analyst and writer. She researches popular economies and the situation of sexual and reproductive rights in Venezuela. Since 2014, Garcia-Sojo has been part of Faldas-R, a combative feminist organization that is part of Chavismo. In this interview, she walks us through some problematic areas of Venezuela’s legal code – which penalizes abortion with prison time – and outlines the most urgent demands of the feminist movement.
[Next week we will publish part II of this interview with Mariana Garcia-Sojo.]
Venezuela and Paraguay are the countries with the most retrograde abortion laws in South America. What is the situation that a woman who decides to terminate a pregnancy faces?
The legal framework regarding abortion in Venezuela is, indeed, among the most backward in the continent. As a consequence, when women decide to terminate a pregnancy, they face not only the social stigma and the real dangers that come along with clandestine abortions, but they also face possible prison time.
Penalizing abortion makes it very difficult for women to get the information they need to terminate a pregnancy. Those women who have access to the internet – a privilege now in Venezuela – run a search, which often takes them to the Secure Abortion Hotline [Linea Aborto – Información Segura], which is a Faldas-R self-managed initiative. Or they get to other allied organizations.
However, many others get lost in a maze of unsafe clinics offering their services; people selling pills that aren’t secure and at exorbitantly high prices; and outdated or simply false information about abortion methods. Many of the “options” that women are offered are not just dangerous. They are also exorbitantly expensive, time-consuming, and often ineffective.
Regarding the specifics of the law, Venezuela’s legal code is very old. It was developed in 1915 and updated for the last time in 2005, and it penalizes abortion in articles 430, 431, 433, and 434.
The one and only cause that justifies an abortion is laid out in article 432, which allows for an abortion to save the life of a pregnant woman, with the doctor being the decision-maker in such a case. As for incarceration, a woman who is found guilty gets six months to three years in prison.
Needless to say, this is very retrograde and outdated. For this reason, at least two UN commissions have requested that the code be made more flexible, and similar requests have come from the CEDEAW [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women], which Venezuela subscribes.
What do the statistics tell us about abortions in Venezuela?
We have been in a kind of statistical blackout since 2014. The latest numbers released were in 2013, and they tell us that unsafe abortions cause 10 percent of maternal deaths. In fact, unsafe abortions are the third cause of maternal deaths in a country that has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the region.
The other data that we have comes from an IDENNA [Consejo Autónomo de Niños, Niñas y Adolescentes]. Their 2014 report, the last available, indicates that amongst teenage pregnancies, 55 percent are unwanted, and out of those, a minimum of 13 percent end up in abortion.
To all this, I should add that in Venezuela most abortions go under the radar. In other words, in healthcare centers abortions are most often not registered and, when they are, there is no differentiation between induced and spontaneous ones.
Unfortunately, given the circumstances, it is really difficult to grasp the dimensions of the ongoing crisis in women’s lives. What we do know, however, is that the danger that women face is huge, not only because they don’t have access to proper care and medical attention, but also because they don’t have access to reliable information.
Despite the state’s “statistical blackout,” there are at least two organizations working to shed some light on this issue. The Faldas-R Secure Abortion Hotline provides free information about the use of abortion pills following up-to-date [World Health Organization] WHO protocols. The organization also gathers information and produces an annual report with anonymous data gathered through the phone calls we receive.
This gives us a snapshot of the conditions and circumstances in which Venezuelan women abort. Amongst other things, the report helps us combat the stigmatizing stereotypes about abortion in our society and question the anti-abortion-rights discourse in Venezuela.
The average age of women who called the hotline between 2015 and 2018 was 25. In other words, they are not adolescents, which is the stereotype. Additionally, around 40 percent have one to two children, and 41 percent indicated that they were considering abortion due to the economic difficulties they are facing. Finally, 84 percent of women who called us had no prior abortion experience. In other words, women are not turning to abortion as a contraceptive method.
Another organization that has gathered important data regarding abortion is “Equivalencias en Acción” [Equivalences in Action], which monitored four hospitals in central Venezuela for five months, releasing a report in 2018. The four centers registered an average of 15 abortions daily, with a total of 2245 abortions during the study period. The report does not distinguish between induced and spontaneous abortions, since pill-induced abortions display the same symptoms as spontaneous ones. Nonetheless, the report is important because it gives us some clues as to the prevalence of abortion in Venezuela.
The Venezuelan state provides neither contraceptive methods nor sexual and reproductive education. Additionally, contraceptive methods are expensive and inaccessible to large sectors of the population. How does this situation affect the sexual and reproductive life and health of women? And what about that of teenage girls?
We are currently facing a multi-dimensional crisis in Venezuela: since 2012 we have been going through a political and institutional crisis; the capitalist rentier model is taking on water; there is a cruel imperialist siege; and now, on top of that, comes the COVID crisis, with mobility restrictions and economic burdens. All this has an enormous impact on access to contraceptive methods.
Of course, the lack of sexual education in Venezuela means that both minors and adult women, including those who are pregnant, have very limited information regarding their sexual and reproductive rights and options, as well as their sexual autonomy.
In the case of adolescent women, the situation is particularly dramatic, because they are a structurally vulnerable population. An important data in this regard is the adolescent fertility rate, which has been historically high in Venezuela, is now climbing. Unfortunately, we don’t have up to date information on this or on maternal mortality. The most recent available data is from 2016, indicating a ratio of 95 adolescent mothers out of every thousand. This is a very high number! The continental average is 62. We are up there with Ecuador, Honduras, and Bolivia, but in that nation – as opposed to Venezuela – the numbers have been falling.
We are facing a situation that infringes on the sexual and reproductive rights of the most vulnerable sectors of society. Women’s autonomy to make basic decisions, such as how many children they will have, which is a right guaranteed in Article 76 of the Venezuelan constitution, is effectively nullified by the current legal and economic arrangement of society.
Recently, CEDESEX [Sexual and Reproductive Rights Center] carried out a study regarding young women’s access to contraceptives. Of a pool of 495 adolescent and young adult women, 55 percent reported that they would, in principle, acquire contraceptive methods in pharmacies. Nonetheless, of those, 43 percent said that they are often unable to purchase the methods, for economic reasons or because of mobility restrictions imposed during the lockdown.
The CEDESEX research also showed that 91 percent of the surveyed women believe that the state must develop a special family planning initiative during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such initiatives should include large purchases of contraceptives by the state and massive distribution campaigns. Unfortunately, we have no news of large-scale purchases since 2015.
Finally, Proyecto Mujeres, a Zulia-based organization that monitors the price of the pill, recently revealed that by July 12, the pill cycle would cost nine dollars. In a country where the minimum wage is less than five dollars, contraceptives have become a luxury for a privileged few.
All in all, this is a very dangerous situation, which is compounded by the state’s lack of transparency.