Bolivia’s limited de-criminalization of abortion has been reversed

After a year of drafting and debate, the significant but limited liberalization of Bolivia’s abortion laws lasted just six weeks. It was signed into law on December 15, 2017, as part of an omnibus reform of the country’s Criminal Code, but that law was repealed in its entirety on January 27, 2018. Between these two dates, the major challenge to the law was not about abortion but rather an extended strike by medical workers who opposed provisions in the law that criminalize malpractice. Transport workers also objected to new ways of being held liable for traffic accidents.

Reportedly, the abortion provisions—which would have exempted more women from the general criminalization of abortion in Bolivia, and allowed qualifying women to fill out a form rather than seek authorization from a judge—were a matter of internal tension within the ruling Movement Towards Socialism party.

The medical strike unexpectedly became a convergence point for various critics of the government, who formed the Coordinadora de Defensa de la Democracia (Coordination in Defense of Democracy) and demanded the government respect the February 2016 referendum vote that rejected President Morales running for a fourth term.

President Evo Morales signed the full repeal of the Criminal Code amendments in an unusual ceremony in which he did not speak a word.

Bolivia moves to decriminalize some early-term abortions, sparking misogynist outbursts

Bolivia is on the verge of a mild liberalization of its abortion laws after the Plurinational Legislative Assembly approved changes this week. On Wednesday, December 6, the Bolivian Senate approved a rewrite of the article of the country’s penal code that deals with abortion. While the code continues to treat abortion as a crime, and to threaten women who have them with one to three years in jail, it carves out new exceptions for some women who terminate their pregnancies within the first eight weeks of pregnancy. Women who are parents or caregivers to elderly or disabled members of their household, or who are students, may seek abortions without penalty. Perhaps more importantly, the revised law replaces a system that required pregnant women to seek judicial authorization for abortion with a simple form to be filled out within a medical setting. The simpler process will also be available under cases that were already permitted: abortion to protect the life or health of the mother, in the cases of rape, incest, or assisted reproduction without the woman’s consent; detection of fetal abnormalities that are fatal, and if the woman is a minor. The governing MAS-IPSP party backed the changes and President Evo Morales is expected sign them into law.

Bolivia’s current abortion law (es), enacted in 1973 under dictator Hugo Banzer, has been a public health disaster. Since it required authorization from a judge, and provided a very narrow set of circumstances to do so, it made seeking a legal abortion into a slow, uncertain, and costly process. In a recent two and half-year period, Bolivian hospitals recorded performing just 120 legal abortions, an average of fewer than 50 per year. Meanwhile, some 200 women seek clandestine abortions each day, according to a March 2017 Health Ministry estimate. Of these, around 115 seek follow-up care in hospitals for the side effects of abortion-inducing drugs or in recovery from clandestine surgeries. Over forty women died from the side effects of clandestine abortion in 2011, making unsafe abortion a major contributor to the country’s alarmingly high maternal mortality rate (National Study of Maternal Mortality (es), using 2011 data). Abortion led to 8% of all deaths of pregnant or post-partum women, and 13% of deaths under obstetric care.

The revisions to the law will not change the overarching framework surrounding abortion in Bolivia: criminalization. They do, however, acknowledge the ways that limiting family size and ending unwanted pregnancies can support women’s roles as caregivers and as students. These roles are the ones foregrounded by the Bolivian campaign group

Bolivian feminists continue to demand that the state “Decriminalize my decision.”: “Our demand is the decriminalization! (It) is an… advance in the context of a conservative onslaught… we continue moving towards decriminalization.” (translation by Telesur)

https://twitter.com/monicanovillo/status/938408989934669824

For Elizabeth Salguero, former Minister of Cultures and prominent MAS-IPSP politician, the changes mark “a great step forward for sexual and reproductive rights.”

The yearlong debate on this bill has been marked by protest from the Catholic hierarchy and evangelical Christian groups who frame their opposition in terms of defending life. The Plataforma por la Vida y la Familia (Platform for Life and the Family) is calling on President Evo Morales to veto the legislation. However, the opposition campaign has been marred by impolitic outbursts from within its own ranks. As the Senate bill was being voted upon (eventually backed 23–9), opposition Senator Arturo Murillo shocked the audience by saying:

Kill yourselves. Let those women who say they want to do whatever they want with their bodies kill themselves. Do it, commit suicide, but don’t kill the life of another.

Mátense ustedes, mátense las mujeres que dicen que quieren hacer lo que les da la gana con su cuerpo, háganlo, suicídense, pero no maten una vida ajena

It was a phrase that stripped away all pretense of religious conviction, and the sanctity of human life, from his opposition to abortion. Yet Murillo’s apology “to those I offended” demanded “respect for my principles and my way of thinking about this sensitive topic.”

Senator Perez was not the first abortion opponent to be moved to a public outburst during this debate. Back in April, Jesuit priest and Radio Fides personality Eduardo Pérez Iribarne complained on the morning show Cafe de la Mañana that the president’s cabinet was unqualified to speak to family issues like abortion:

In the cabinet, I would like to ask who, besides [Vice President] Álvaro García Linera and his wife, lives with their family? Starting with Evo, [they are] divorce women and men, living separately, here and there. And this cabinet of people displaced for life is going to set the standard for how to have abortions?!

En el gabinete me gustaría preguntar, fuera de Álvaro García Linera y su esposa ¿qué miembros del gabinete tienen una convivencia familiar? Empezando de Evo, divorciadas, divorciados, separados, con aquí allá. Y ese gabinete de gente desplazada por la vida va a dar pautas sobre cómo hay que hacer los abortos.

If this weren’t enough, Father Pérez also piled on to Health Minister Ariana Campero (Wikipedia), a single woman who became the Bolivia’s younger cabinet member at age 28. Since then, she has endured cringe-inducing on-stage sexual harassment from a gubernatorial candidate and the Vice President, as well as a presidential admonition not to become a lesbian. On the same morning as his comments about divorcées in the cabinet Pérez effectively suggested that Campero was unqualified and had slept her way onto the cabinet:

Excuse me, miss, I don’t dare call her doctor, I don’t dare! It could be because I am gay man, but I don’t dare call her a doctor, I prefer to call her the Minister of Health. And why are you the Minister? I don’t know, I have been told rumors, but I don’t want to broadcast them because they are gossip.

¡Discúlpeme, señora, no me atrevo a llamarla médica, no me atrevo! Será porque soy un maricón, pero no me atrevo a llamarle médica, prefiero llamarla Ministra de Salud. ¿Por qué está de ministra? No sé, me han contado chismes, pero no quiero difundir porque son chismes.

576px-Protesta_papa_abortoMinister Campero responded in an op-ed: “Surely for you my six sins are being a woman, young, a doctor who studied medicine in Cuba, feminist, communist, and single; that is why you said what you said. Seguramente para usted mis seis pecados sean ser mujer, joven, médica graduada en Cuba, feminista, comunista y soltera; por ello dijo lo que dijo.

The abortion debate has long revolved around the question of whether restrictions on abortion are born of concern for the sanctity of life, as one side claims, or about restricting the behavior of women who simply can’t be trusted. In this year’s Bolivian debate, the mildest steps to liberalize access to abortion have set off extreme attacks on women from abortion opponents, reinforcing the pro-choice claims that anti-abortion politics is rooted in misogyny.

Photos: Panel: National Pact for Depenalizing Abortion (Cambio newspaper). Abortion hat photo by Stéphane M. Grueso (El Perroflauta Digital).

The State of Human Rights in Bolivia: The UN View

This is an expanded and hyperlinked version of an article I contributed to Bolivia Information Forum’s News Briefing service. Please support BIF’s appeal for funds to continue its valuable work.

Bolivia’s record on human rights came up for review by the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee* during its October session. As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Bolivia submits a report on its performance every five years. The Committee looked at that report and submissions from numerous human rights organizations in drafting a series of recommendations (Concluding Observations [es] | all documents from the process). In the UN committee’s view, the state of political freedom and social equality in the country is an uneasy balance between ambitious new legislative protections and inadequate practical implementation of national and international norms.

The Bolivian government has passed new laws to guarantee rights and combat discrimination, including norms against racism and other forms of discrimination (2010), violence against women (2013), and gendered political harassment (2012). While some regional commissions on racism are operating, the regulations to protect women from violence are still pending. A law on consultation with indigenous communities is also pending. The Committee criticized Bolivia for failing to respect the right to free, prior, and informed consent on projects and laws that affect indigenous peoples and their territories.

The Committee’s strongest criticisms refer to Bolivia’s overwhelmed criminal justice system. Investigations and prosecutions are slow, while prisons are overcrowded to 230% of their capacity. Four out of five people in Bolivia’s jails are awaiting trial, and the Committee suggested that alternatives like house arrest and location monitors could see many of them released. It said that those who remain should have the right to be housed separately from convicted criminals. A government amnesty plan is underway, but progress remains slow. Delays in prosecution are also creating a situation of impunity for those responsible for racist attacks perpetrated in 2008, the murder of two women council members in 2012, and police repression at Chaparina and Mallku Khota, among others. The Committee also urged further action to combat lynchings, as well as corporal punishment carried out in the family and traditional spheres of the justice system.

The Bolivian armed forces and police were singled out in a number of observations.  A series of revelations of brutal treatment of conscripts and of beatings of prisoners have generated controversy, but there have been few successful prosecutions.  The Committee also urged opening military records from the dictatorship era (between the mid 1960s and early 1980s), and the creation of an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

Finally, the UN Committee urged expanded protection of rights on several fronts.  It argues that the current obligation for women seeking a legal abortion (in cases of rape, incest, and medical necessity) to get a judge’s backing contributes to maternal mortality and should be eliminated. It also urged new action to free hundreds of Guaraní families still trapped in servitude, and to criminalize violence against sexual minorities and transgender people.

* This Human Rights Committee is a body established by article 28 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.