Thursday, November 7, 2013

Reproductive Justice When Abortion Is a Cultural Taboo

November 6, 2013 | by Patricia Valoy

The topic of abortion is divisive for most people.

I find it very unlikely that we will all agree on the morality of abortion, because while scientific inquiry can enlighten us on whether a fetus feels pain or has a beating heart, people will often feel a deep attachment to their cultural upbringing and/or their faith.

As a Dominican immigrant, I understand very well the cultural taboo around abortion and sexuality.

All Latin American countries – except for Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guyana – prohibit abortion. Some countries, like Colombia and Argentina, will permit an abortion only if it risks the life of the mother. But most countries – including Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Chile, Haiti, and Nicaragua – prohibit abortions under all circumstances.

In Latin America, there are 31 unsafe abortions per 1,000 women aged 15 through 44, and 12% of all maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortions.

Abortion is illegal in Latin America not because women don’t want or need abortions, but because the Catholic Church has a tight grip on politics – a legacy left over from colonialism at the hands of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in the 16th and 17th century.

And while Europe and the United States were legalizing abortion and gaining equality for women, Latin American women were fighting against brutal dictatorships and political corruption through most of the 1970s and 1980s.

Growing up in a culture where abortion is a taboo and illegal means that we don’t develop the vocabulary needed to organize. We use euphemisms because abortion is considered such a great sin that it’s too uncomfortable to even speak about.

But the issue with abortion is that when a woman needs one, she will get one.

And personal beliefs on the morality of abortion and what constitutes life might play a big role in how we feel about the procedure, but the will to survive is often much stronger.

In July of 2013, a Salvadorian woman and mother of one named Beatriz, who suffers from lupus and kidney failure, was denied an abortion after an ultrasound showed that her fetus was developing without a brain.

In July of 2012, a 16-year-old girl named Esperancita from the Dominican Republic died after being refused chemotherapy to treat her acute leukemia, because it would cause her to miscarry her 3-week-old fetus. After ten weeks of debate on whether to allow her to receive treatment, she suffered a miscarriage and went into cardiac arrest.

When Esperancita’s mother lost her child, she said, “My daughter’s life is first. I know that [abortion] is a sin and that it goes against the law…but my daughter’s health is first.”

These are just two of the stories that caught the attention of American media.

Meanwhile, women and girls as young as 10 years old are accused of manslaughter for having a miscarriage and sentenced to 30 years in jail.

The Latino community is not a monolith, but we do come from countries that are deeply Catholic and conservative.

And that means that as much as I (and other Latin@s) might personally speak up for abortion access, our culture pushes back.

How we approach the issue of abortion access with members of communities where speaking openly about abortion has dire consequences is the key to change.

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