Sunday, September 4, 2011

Abortion in Poland, the US, Venezuela

Sometimes it’s good that I don’t read all of my feeds in real time, only getting to some posts after the urgency of the situation they describe has passed. That was the case with a post by HRW a few days ago – “Poland: Reject Blanket Ban on Abortion.” I was relieved to find that the law had failed. On the other hand, the state of reproductive rights in Poland is dismal. Abortions are only legal under three circumstances: the pregnancy poses a threat to the health or life of the woman or results from rape, or the fetus is severely deformed or sick. And even under these circumstances, it seems they’re nearly impossible to obtain. Legal abortions numbered a mere 583 (in a population of 11 million women of childbearing age) in 2010. It’s estimated that well more than 100,000 abortions actually occurred, not counting those obtained in foreign countries; these were illegal and expensive (a veritable racket), beyond the reach of many poor women.

It’s difficult to estimate the suffering and death this has caused, and it’s especially perverse given that abortion was legal under Communism. The denial of human rights to women in Poland does not simply reflect cultural attitudes. It results from the long-term targeted interference of the Catholic Church in the country’s politics. As Wikileaks documents have revealed, the Vatican has looked upon Poland as a place to realize their authoritarian, misogynistic fantasies in the 21st century and a fortress against secular Europe. I hope this law’s failure signals that the Vatican is losing its grip on Poland and that the country will make progress on reproductive rights.

Unfortunately, many US states are determined to outdo them. The Guttmacher Institute reports that
In the first six months of 2011, states enacted 162 new provisions related to reproductive health and rights. Fully 49% of these new laws seek to restrict access to abortion services, a sharp increase from 2010, when 26% of new laws restricted abortion. The 80 abortion restrictions enacted this year are more than double the previous record of 34 abortion restrictions enacted in 2005—and more than triple the 23 enacted in 2010. All of these new provisions were enacted in just 19 states.

Venezuela provides an example of how revolutionary social change, even that which challenges the Church and leads to important gains for women in some respects, can leave behind women’s most basic human rights. I was unpleasantly surprised to read in Revolutionary Doctors Brouwer’s description of a local health committee meeting:
…There was a short discussion about birth control, with everyone lauding the free contraception available in various forms at each walk-in clinic and asking for even more information to be provided by both doctors and health committee volunteers. No one, however, brought up the subject of abortion, which generally is not accepted by most lower-class Venezuelan women. For this reason, I was told, the Cuban doctors, who are used to providing abortion on demand in their own country, do not proselytize about the subject to their Venezuelan patients. (KL 1489-1493).
It should be noted that this was several years ago, but it’s probable that Brouwer is underestimating the strength of desire for reproductive rights in the country even then. Women continue to be sacrificed by politicians and governments who claim to be fighting for justice. It should be discussed in this context, as the criminalization of abortion is not just a denial of human rights but a serious public health concern. Estrella Gutiérrez reports that unsafe abortions are the second leading cause of maternal mortality in the region. The Catholic hierarchy hates Chávez anyway and would like nothing better than to get rid of him (as they helped do with Aristide). I don’t care if many politicians, including Chávez, see themselves and their movements as in part inspired by Christianity. No church should have any role in government policy.

The Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean is the 28th of this month, and I plan to post more at that time. There is movement, and I’m optimistic for the expansion of reproductive rights globally, including in the three countries just discussed. But a major element in effecting that expansion has to be getting religious, and especially Vatican, influence out of policy.

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