Abortion Rights in Cuba Face New Challenges

In 2016, 85,445 abortions were carried out among women aged 12-49 years old, which represents 41.9 interrupted pregnancies per 100 pregnant women.

By Ivet Gonzalez  (IPS Cuba)*

Three young Cuban women. The right to abort has been guaranteed by Cuban law for over half a century, but it is beginning to be persecuted by churches who have strong anti-abortion views. Photo: Jorge Luis Banos – IPS

HAVANA TIMES — When it seemed like an issue resolved in Cuban society, feminist activists and experts are apprehensive about the latest public outbreaks of anti-abortion discourse, which condemn this practice in a country where abortion has been safe and free for over half a century.

“Pro-Life (anti-abortion) discourse, just like all of the other arguments that have been drawn up to argue in favor of reinstating repressive measures against abortion, ignore, like always, one of the most important factors of this issue: women,” notes sociologist Reina Fleitas told IPS, who is very well-known for her gender and local development investigations.

Fleitas went on further to say that she lamented that “the silence or devaluation of women’s situation is a constant,” when we talk about current problems such as low exclusive maternal breastfeeding, a small number of children per woman and the accelerated aging process of the Cuban population.

Cuba is one of three countries in Latin America who have decriminalized the voluntary termination of a pregnancy up until the 8th week gestation limit, in a region where abortion is still penalized no matter what the circumstances in four countries and is only allowed in many other countries in extreme situations such as rape or the mother’s life at risk.

Along with Uruguay and Puerto Rico, this Caribbean island has allowed D&C (dilation and curettage) procedures at women’s request at health institutions, which are all public and free because the socialist government considers health as a human right which it ensures for its 11.2 million inhabitants.

In Mexico City, a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy voluntarily has been recognized since 2007, but on the other hand, several states within this country also include the protection of fetal rights from conception, just like El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

Pregnant Cuban women receive information about healthy habits to take into account during the gestation period at a health center, in a country where reproductive healthcare is provided for free. Photo: Jorge Luis Banos – IPS

In Cuba, it was the only form of contraception used by Cuban women for many years, until modern contraceptives appeared and became more widespread.

“The assessment of over 50 years of voluntary and free abortions has been positive because women have gained a right in Cuba which has had great benefits. The most important has been the drop in maternal mortality,” Fleitas evaluated, which she also labels as “an example of gender focus in health.”

In 2014, none of the 26 maternal deaths that took place were a result of this procedure, while in 2015, two out of the 29 deaths in Cuba and 5 out of the 32 female deaths, in 2016, due to maternity complications were a result of abortions, according to the 2016 Annual Health Statistical Report.

Also a proffesor, Fleitas expressed her concern for the discourses which don’t recognize gender equality or the disadvantaged situation or the female population, “as they always end in easiest and less expensive solutions: a prohibitive and repressive law for women.”

Although activists and experts doubt whether legislation about abortion rights will be reversed, they are afraid that the advance of anti-abortion stances might pressure women to consider terminating an unwanted pregnancy like an option within their reach.

“Women’s rights to decide over their bodies are inalienable and need to still be defended in Cuba for many different reasons,” stated doctor Alberto Roque, who is an activist for the respect of free sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as a bioethics researcher.

His voice was among the first to criticize the anti-abortion lyrics of Cuban singer Danay Suarez, on February 25th, during her performance at this year’s edition of the Vina del Mar song contest, in Chile, at a time when people in this South American country were fighting for a therapeutic abortion law which was finally approved on August 21st.

Then, the prize this young promising Cuban singer won was overshadowed by her position, which Cuban anti-abortion activists publicized as an example of the strength these ideas have taken on in this Caribbean nation, a breeding ground for religion on the rise and the growing presence of churches who are emphatic about their opposition to this right, especially Evangelical ones.

[Editor’s Note: Although the Catholic Church has the same position, at this time it is not publicaly insisting on it in Cuba, as it does in other Latin American countries.]

Roque notices obstacles in Cuba such as “the existence of Pro-Life stances, patriarchy’s strength as an ideology, increasing social inequality and growing poverty, and the State’s economic approaches with relation to low birth rates and the indiscriminate use of abortion as a contraceptive method.”

The latter is a problem which has been recognized and is being tackled by the health sector which, according to the doctor, “reflects poor sex education during adolescence and the poor implementation of this health policy.” In fact, this abuse is one of the arguments highlighted by detractors of voluntary abortion.

Two teenage couples at Havana’s malecon seawall. During 2016, 77% of child-bearing age women in a stable relationship used contraceptives, while 42% of pregnant women terminated their pregnancies voluntarily. Photo: Jorge Luis Banos – IPS

In 2016, 85,445 abortions were carried out among women aged 12-49 years old, which represents 41.9 terminated pregnancies per 100 pregnant women. This landscape contrasts with the wide accessibility and coverage of contraceptives, which were calculated to be used by 77.1% of child-bearing age women in a stable relationship.

Although voluntary abortions today represent half of those which took place 12 years ago, authorities hardly offer figures on menstrual extractions, which is one kind of curettage but with vacuum aspiration during the first weeks after a missing period and has been available since 1987, even at some polyclinics (walk-in centers).

As these aren’t included in government statistics, there is “an underestimation about the level of abortions in recent years, given the fact that 70% of these menstrual extractions terminate unwanted pregnancies,” pointed out doctor Maria Elena Benitez, in a study published in 2014.

In “The path to safe abortion in Cuba: prevention is better than abortion”, the fact that it is Cuban women who make the decision to abort or to continue with the pregnancy is highlighted, firstly because of the empowerment that this means and, secondly, for the limited responsibility men have in reproduction and “the consequences of unprotected sexual relations.”

The expert listed reasons to not go ahead with a pregnancy: unsuitable age to be pregnant, a pregnancy very close after giving birth, difficult economic situations; lack of knowledge, poor use of contraceptives and the failures and poor availability of these, obstacles to personal projects, prejudice and poor material and family living conditions.

“We need to accept that terminating a pregnancy is a traumatic experience for a potential mother,” the editor and feminist Pilar Sa told IPS. “Whoever has gone through this tough time will know just how difficult it is to make this decision,” she shared, while she also urged for “sex education, ethics and morals to be promoted among men.”

Writer Jose Miguel Sanchez, known as Yoss, called the anti-abortion movement’s discourse out-of-date “at these times of population explosion and a shortage of resources.”

The science fiction author, who is very active is social debates, also lamented the fact that this is being “encouraged more and more, by a State (Cuba’s) that is afraid of running out of its workforce in the near future if less and less children are born.”

Liane Ramos, who confessed that she had never had an abortion in her 46 years, pressed health and education centers to “promote people’s knowledge of this right and to approach it in a responsible manner as it poses risks to women’s physical, psychological and sexual health.”

More about abortion in Cuba

The first abortion law dates back to 1936, when abortion began to be allowed on three grounds: saving the mother’s life or preventing great harm to her health, rape or the possibility of passing on a serious hereditary disease to the fetus.

Nevertheless, under social and government tolerance, private clinics were offering voluntary abortions to Cuban women who could pay for them and even women from other countries, especially from the neighboring United States, before 1959.

Receiving a storm of international criticism and internal resistance from the religious sector, voluntary abortion was institutionalized in 1965 on four basic grounds: that it is the woman who decides, it needs to take place at a hospital, it needs to be carried out by expert staff and it needs to be totally free.

Official decriminalization took place in 1987, when the Penal Code, which is still in force, established that it was only a crime when it is done for profit, outside of health institutions, by non-medical staff or against a woman’s will.
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*Translation by Havana Times

 

  • Carlyle MacDuff

    Where is Mariela Castro? Raul Castro who was educated as a Jesuit, mused in 2016 that he might rejon the Catholic Church and the current Jesuit Pope who unlike John Paul II tends to support the oppressors rather than the oppressed, would welcome him – perhaps with conditions.
    Is there a potential division between Raul and his daughter, or will she stay mute on this occasion?

    • Nick

      The current Jesuit Pope tends to support the oppressors rather than the oppressed?
      Good example your of arch right wing credentials there Mr MacD??
      I’m not a God fearing person myself, but it strikes me that the current Pope is way closer to the teachings of Jesus than any of his predecessors.
      It’s the right wing, US funded, fundamentalist, evangelical movement (creeping round the continent of America with a one dimensional bible in one hand and a goodie bag in the other) that is pushing the strident anti-choice viewpoint.

      • Carlyle MacDuff

        I judge him by his actions, i am not guided by his faith. But I acept Nick that you think that this Pope is closer to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than John Paul II, who certainly supported the oppressed in Poland when they were uprising against the communist regime. This Pope as I have already mentioned, demonstrated his methods when in Cuba.
        As a non-believer, I am wary of all those who claim to be nearer to God than the rest of humanity. Certainly that applies not only to the Catholic Church, but also to the evangelical and other religious movements. They all show a marked lack of tolerance of any view that is contradictory to their own.

        • Nick

          You are always referring to the ‘oppressed’.
          But you never seem to express any concern regarding the millions who are oppressed by the cruel ultra-capitalist dictum currently in vogue.
          The current Pope has referred to the cruelty of this dictum.
          Back on to Cuba. It would be a great shame if the anti-choice brigade gain a foothold via the growing Evangelical/Christian Fundamentalist influence on the island.

          • Carlyle MacDuff

            I Nick am not concerned about the pro-choice/anti-choice debate, I support freedom and object to those who wish to control all others in seeking power.
            Just pause for a moment, and reflect upon the meaning of oppression. It is the prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or exercise of control or authority. When writing objectively of the reality of communism and in particular the form of application by the Castro regime in Cuba, it is difficult to avoid speaking of oppression. The unjust treatment of those who seek freedom of expression, the avid exercise of power and authority over the daily lives of the people of Cuba is self-evident.
            I accept that such behaviour by dictatorial authority is approved by those of communist persuasion who are opposed to freedom of the individual. But that recognition reflects disgust, not approval.
            As I have written the religious groupings “show a marked lack of tolerance of any view that is contrary to their own.” My own intolenace is of those who seek to dictate – whether of ‘left’ or ‘right’, because I support freedom of individual thought, they do not.

          • Nick

            OK Mr MacD. I paused for a moment.
            Then I noticed that you didn’t really address my point.
            This does not particularly surprise me.
            You obviously either condone or are oblivious to the massive levels of oppression and misery caused by overt capitalism.
            It’s the same old difference of opinion Mr MacD and I think we are going to have to just agree to disagree again.

          • Carlyle MacDuff

            If you cannot understand: “I support freedom and object to those who wish to control all others in seeking power” then I am surprised Nick. You speak in vague generalities, I am specific.
            “overt capitalism” and “ultra-capitalist dictum” do not describe by whom. Try being specific, I have referred specifically to: “the Castro regime in Cuba”.

          • Nick

            I fully understand your rhetoric Mr MacD
            There are multitudes suffering because they are the fall out from the dominant ultra capitalist system which you clearly support.
            Let me be specific about where:
            Planet Earth.

          • Carlyle MacDuff

            Without wrapping it up in unneccessary verbiage Nick, yes I prefer capitalism with all its evident faults to communism under which multitudes have suffered and are continuing to suffer.

  • CErmle

    Now you want to diss even the Pope. He does not support “the oppressors”. Your understanding of matters of faith is negligible. As far as Mariela is concerned, many believe she and her father are becoming increasingly pro-life.

    • Carlyle MacDuff

      Believe what you like CErmle. It was Pope Francis who chose to visit the ex-communicated Fidel Castro at his five house complex in Siboney and to be filmed holding hands. On the same visit he declined to meet with dissidents of his own faith who sought a meeting. Having made his official visit to Cuba, Pope Francis then chose the following year to divert his flight to Mexico in order to drop in to Jose Marti Airport to meet with Raul Castro Ruz and Kirill, Patriach of Moscow and All the Russias Orthodox Church. As Kirill is very much Buddy-buddy with Vladamir Putin, it was an opportunity for a nice tete-a-tete. You of course being full of admiration for dictatorship, do not regard them as “oppressors”, I do.
      You have no knowledge whatsoever of my understanding of faith. I dare say that I have met, mixed and discussed “faith” with more Priests, Vicars, Ministers, Rabbis and Missionaries than you have.
      It is reasonable for those of us who know Cuba, to muse about the potential for strife between Raul Castro who has debated re-joining the Catholic Church (and even you ought to know the view upon abortion held by that Church) and his daughter Mariela with her role within Cuba.
      “Many believe” that the moon is made of cheese.

  • Eden Wong

    What a shame to see the far right extreme evangelist groups getting more and more of a foothold in Cuba, especially in the campo where they out-and-out bribe poor locals who are at the bottom end of the economic spectrum to join their nutjob cause.

    • Carlyle MacDuff

      We have one such group in our community Eden. So having established a house as a ‘church’, the converted faithful have slaved away and built a massive new house for the preacher. It has fancy columns, glass windows, chandeliers, a play area on the roof and a garage for the large van for which a licence was given – the lot!
      The preacher and his family now live in real style with nice clothing, new shoes and need for nothing.
      Almost enough to make one become a preacher!

      • Eden Wong

        I am a hardcore live-and-let-live person, totally against censorship or
        restrictions of any kind so long as you stay out of my personal
        business, have zero impact on my quality of life and your stuff doesn’t involve the misuse of minors, animals or anything else that can’t defenditself.

        But these evangelistic nutbars… my God, the stuff they do to
        desperately poor people who are grasping at straws is utterly despicable. Organized religion is one of the few remnants of the
        Revolution that made sense. Cuba is the only Latin country that hasn’t been crushed, manipulated and abused by the Church to some degree.

        Oh well.