Abortion remains legally restricted in almost all of Latin America, and in Bolivia clandestine abortions are the third leading cause of maternal deaths
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David Dougherty: On Friday, September 27th, the Plaza San Francisco in La Paz, Bolivia was painted red as advocates of women’s sexual and reproductive rights staged a protest they call the red carpet. Demonstrators laid themselves out across the plaza in front of the Catholic Church, their red clothes representing the blood of Bolivian women who have died as a result of clandestine abortions. Like in virtually all of Latin America and the Caribbean, abortion remains illegal in Bolivia except for in special cases. Following the demonstration in the plaza, protestors like Noemi Sota who traveled from the eastern city of Santa Cruz marched through downtown La Paz.
Noemi Sota: Plataforma de Lucha Contra la Violencia Hacia la Mujer, Santa Cruz: We don’t want any more deaths, abortion is an issue of democracy and autonomy, it’s a matter of choice, and abortion exists even if people here don’t want to see it… women who want to get an abortion are getting them underground, especially poor women, they go to these underground centers and their lives are put at risk.
David Dougherty: It is estimated that between 40 and 60 thousand abortions a year are carried out in Bolivia, both in clandestine centers of varying degrees of quality and in other cases at home using any number of improvised, and often dangerous, methods. Bolivia’s maternal mortality rate is among the highest in Latin America, with illegal abortions constituting the third leading cause of maternal deaths. Following Friday’s march through La Paz, which was staged ahead of the annual Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean, demonstrators representing various organizations from across the country gathered to strategize and plan their next moves. They say decriminalizing abortion is only the first step, and that in addition to pushing for a variety of public health policy initiatives aimed at preventing the need for abortions and providing care for those who have had them, they must also struggle against a patriarchal system that denies women control over their own bodies.
Germana Montalvo, Colectivo Juvenil Decide: We believe that the decriminalization of abortion must also guarantee sexual education and access to contraceptives, and that this requires investment not only in public policies to be fulfilled by the state, but also in recognizing women, women’s bodies, and especially young women, as actors for development and rights-bearing subjects.
David Dougherty: There is an ongoing case filed in Bolivia’s constitutional tribunal earlier this year that challenges the constitutionality of 5 articles in the country’s penal code that pertain to abortion. Bolivia’s new constitution enacted in 2009 includes a number of important advancements in ensuring women’s rights, but women’s groups say there is still a large gap between what is written and what is put into practice.
Alicia Arancibia, Consorcio Boliviano de Juventudes, Sucre: There are a number of factors; one is the influence of religious fundamentalist groups that is very strong and includes all of the different churches. Another is the political aspect, right now we are in the pre-electoral season, and so no government wants to risk doing something so progressive as what we are calling for with the decriminalization of abortion, and also I think there are issues of patriarchy and machismo that remain immense amongst the authorities.
David Dougherty: The only places in Latin America and the Caribbean where abortions are currently allowed without legal restrictions include Cuba, the Federal District of Mexico City, Guyana, French Guiana, and most recently Uruguay. Since decriminalizing abortion in December of 2012, Uruguay has not registered a single maternal death due to abortion. In Bolivia, the ruling Movement Towards Socialism party government is seen as unlikely to seriously address the controversial issue of abortion in the coming months as President Evo Morales and party representatives are gearing up campaigns for reelection in 2014.
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