HAVANA TIMES — I have the fortune of living in a country where women can freely decide to end their pregnancy. I consider myself fortunate, and privileged, yes, when I see the state that the world is in and the vicissitudes of our civil rights.
Cuban women had been given the right to abort at a public health facilities eight years before I was born. In 1965, in response to the growing number of female deaths caused by negligent abortion practices carried out without proper equipment, the country began to offer the procedure at hospitals. It was an official government decision implemented by the Ministry of Public Health.
Prior to this, Cuba’s Civil Defense Code (drafted in 1938) exonerated those who practiced abortions if the procedure was aimed at saving the life of the mother or preventing serious damage to her health, when the pregnancy was the result of rape, statutory rape or a similar crime, or in cases where the infant was sure to inherit a serious condition (Alvarez, 1994).
In December of 1979, Cuba’s New Penal Code was signed. Article 267, contained in Chapter 4 of the Code, offers the following definition of an ILLEGAL ABORTION:
1. Anyone who, acting outside the ambit of official abortion regulations, with the authorization of the pregnant woman, causes her to abort or damages her fetus in any way, shall be sanctioned with a prison term of anywhere from 3 months to a year or incur a fine of anywhere from one hundred to three-hundred pesos.
2. The sanction shall be a prison term of anywhere from two to five years if the abortion described in the above clause is:
a) performed for profit;
b) performed outside of an official health institution;
c) performed by a person who is not a medical doctor.
What is unusual about the above norm is that, in contrast to what is customary, it establishes the category of an “illegal abortion” and sets down a number of prohibitions, when, generally speaking, the aim is to regulate abortion practices, not establish the conditions in which it may not be performed.
It is a juridical norm established by the revolutionary government and, whatever its shortcomings, it has continued to afford Cuban women the right to abort, after many years of harsh criticism and in spite of notable international regressions in this connection (Nicaragua, some years back, and Spain, more recently, are two noteworthy cases in point).
There are some who have tendentiously attempted to link the practice of abortion to the drop in fertility rates, the progressive aging of the population or teen pregnancies.
Said disparaging (and biased) campaigns have sought to associate abortion to demographic phenomena such as a decrease in global fecundity rates (understood as the number of descendants per women), gross reproduction rates (daughters per women) and population ageing trends. Reference to the growing numbers of teen pregnancies has also been common during talks about the practice of abortion.
From time to time, the Cuban media have echoed some of these opinions (something I alerted readers about in my article “On World Population Day, Let’s Leave Abortion Alone!”), but, the fact of the matter is that nothing has yet been able to undermine the right to abortion that Cuban women enjoy.
Countless have been the battles that women have had to wage around the world to ensure governments acknowledge and maintain their right to freely decide what to do with their bodies.
In recent days, I have received a great many Twitter posts calling on people to join the protests against the encroachment on women’s sexual and reproductive rights, represented by the call to abolish Spain’s current abortion legislation – the Voluntary Abortion Law (IVE) and Sexual and Reproductive Health Law (SSR) of 2010 – that Spanish Minister of Justice Alberto Ruiz Gallardon is making by advancing a legislative reform proposal.
Announced a little over a year ago, the reform would imply taking the women’s movement back thirty years, back to the 70s or 80s, when Spanish women were fighting for these same rights and devoting great efforts to other equally urgent matters.
Encouraged by these friends and Spanish feminist Twitterers, and remembering Simone Veil’s well-known words of warning, reminding women that they must also fight for rights they have already secured, I would like to share an anecdote with a happy ending that has gone down in the history of the women’s movement’s positive achievements:
In 1971, the French Women’s Liberation Movement had a novel idea about how to prompt a public debate on the issue of abortion. On April 15, Le Monde devoted two pages to a manifesto signed by 343 women who publicly acknowledged having had abortions.
The manifesto, known as the “Manifesto of the 343 Sluts” (“Le manifeste des 343 salopes”), was signed by such renowned figures as Simone de Beauvoir, Christine Rochefort, Delphine Seyrig, Catherine Deneuve, Gisele Halimi, Micheline Presle, Jeanne Moreau, Marguerite Duras and Françoise Fabian. Owing to the renown of these women, the manifesto received wide attention. It read:
One million women in France have an abortion every year.
Condemned to secrecy, they have them in dangerous conditions when this procedure, performed under medical supervision, is one of the simplest.
These women are veiled in silence.
I declare that I am one of them.
I have had an abortion.
Just as we demand free access to birth control, we demand the freedom to have an abortion.
It would seem time has stood still and that the demands expressed in this letter continue to be valid, not only in those countries where women have never been able to legally end their pregnancies, but also in those mentioned above, where the achievements of the women’s movement continue to be eclipsed by new governments.
I can only hope Cuban women will never have the need to write a letter like this. I, for one, do not think it possible, not while the foundational principles of the nation remain intact and the State continues to guarantee women free access to different family planning methods, abortion included.
That said, I would like to call on you to join me in a show of solidarity and indignation, in view of the struggle of our sisters in other nations, to further expose how today’s patriarchy and politicians continue to want to meddle with our lives, our decisions and our uteruses.
Fighting against any measure that seeks to deprive women of a right they’ve secured, no matter where, is part of the struggle of the world feminist movement. I’ve already come up with a web tag for myself: #quetupuedasabortarcomoyo (“#sothatyoucanabortlikeIcan”). Use it also!
(*) First published in Pikara Magazine