The author, who has conducted research in Mexico, offers a reality check on what could happen to U.S. women if the GOP succeeds in criminalizing abortion.
The official 2012 GOP platform calls for a federal ban on abortion with no exception for rape or incest victims. Although some Americans support this platform in theory, they may not realize what limiting a woman’s right to a safe abortion looks like in practice. The GOP platform promotes the idea that a ban on abortion will decrease abortions, but it does nothing to address the situations that create the need for abortion. Those situations – rape, incest, socio-economic factors, and abandonment by a spouse or partner – continue to exist and to cause women to seek abortions. When abortion becomes illegal, desperate circumstances force women to seek unsafe abortions that often endanger their lives. To understand how a ban on abortion could affect U.S. women, look no father than our southern neighbor, Mexico.
In Mexico, abortion is against the law in 18 out of 31 Mexican states. In addition, even states that haven’t made it illegal offer no abortion services and also don’t allow women to prosecute doctors who offer unsafe abortions. Some states permit abortions in cases of rape, while others allow abortion only if the mother’s life is endangered. In the Yucatán, a woman is allowed an abortion if she already has three children and can prove limited economic means. Although abortion carries a three-year prison sentence in Mexico, often women are charged with homicide rather than abortion, and they are sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison. During my work with a human rights organization in Mexico City, I participated in a project interviewing women in prison about human rights abuses. A great number of those young women, 18, 19 and 20-years-old, had been sentenced to 20 or more years in prison for abortion. The stories of the circumstances of those abortions were heartbreaking.
The excerpts from the following two interviews were part of research conducted in prisons in Guanajuato, Guerrero, Puebla and Querétaro. As one woman in prison for abortion described, “my brother-in-law took advantage of the situation [my husband was working in the U.S.], and when he saw that my in-laws were asleep he entered my room and said ‘I don’t care who my brother is’ and he grabbed my hands and ripped off my clothes. He pulled me down, and I shouted desperately for someone to help me, but nobody listened.” As she explained, “When I found out I was pregnant, I expected the worst.”
According to a 2011 New York Times article, nearly one in five women in the United States report that they have been sexually assaulted. Unfortunately the Republican platform is more concerned with legally defining “legitimate rape” than with having a serious discussion about preventing sexual violence and providing birth control and affordable health services for women.
Another young woman in prison for abortion in Mexico described a situation in which she had hidden her pregnancy and went into labor at home. She mentally convinced herself that she wasn’t pregnant because she was afraid of how her family and society would judge her. How many U.S. women have been in the same situation, pregnant and afraid? When the woman went into labor she described how, “I was so afraid that I didn’t understand anything, and I went crazy. There was blood everywhere, and I lost a lot of blood and my baby was born. The truth is that I don’t know what I did. All I remember is that I took a hold of the baby, and then I left the house and I don’t know what I did. You don’t know how sad I am, and after that I was crazy and covered in blood.” Even though her baby died in the birth process, the woman was charged with abortion and sent to prison. In interviews, the women in prison for abortion discussed the lack of essential medical services that put them in a situation in which they felt they had no other option but abortion. In many cases, the women discussed the difficulty of access to gynecological services and birth control.
Ironically, the Republican platform would increase women’s unwanted pregnancies by limiting their access to affordable family planning. The Republican platform states that the government would “not fund or subsidize health care which includes abortion coverage” (think Planned Parenthood, which provides one in five women in the U.S. with affordable birth control, pap smears, breast exams, and early cancer detection). Rather than spending time and money to criminalize a woman’s right to choice and limit her access to contraception, the Republican party should engage in a serious discussion about how to truly decrease abortion: prevent rape through educational initiatives, provide affordable birth control, and support family planning health service providers like Planned Parenthood in their mission to keep women healthy.
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.