Abortion in Venezuela | The arduous fight for the legalization of the right to decide

Induced abortion, or the voluntary interruption of unplanned, unwanted, and unexpected pregnancy, is a controversial issue that gives rise to divergent opinions and confrontations that involve moral, religious, and personal grounds. On the other hand, miscarriage does not stir big social questionings or moral judgments.

The voluntary termination of a pregnancy is a reality that occurs frequently. Since the beginning of humanity, women have resorted to terminating their pregnancy voluntarily to avoid continuing with unwanted gestation. “No woman gets pregnant to abort.” Abortion occurs as a last resort, as women unintentionally get pregnant despite the use of contraceptive methods. As we know, contraceptive methods, whether natural, hormonal, or barrier, are not 100% effective. In other words, the woman still can get pregnant. The most disadvantaged women, who do not have financial resources, are most at risk of getting pregnant. Also, the lack of formal education and information on sexual and reproductive health increases the risk.

Abortion is illegal in Venezuela. The national criminal code, which dates back to 1915 (with the latest reform in 2005), classifies abortion as a crime and only allows it when the pregnant woman’s life is at risk. Instead of reducing the number of abortions, this restriction increases their occurrence. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that in countries where abortion is completely banned or permitted only to save the woman’s life or preserve her physical health, only 1 in 4 abortions is safe. This suggests that restricting access to legal abortion does not reduce the number of them. In other words, criminalization does not reduce its practice.

Unsafe abortions are performed by people with little or no training, who often recommend the ingestion of toxic concoctions or the introduction of sharp objects through the vagina, putting women’s health at risk as it results in incomplete abortions. In other words, remnants of the embryo inside the woman’s body cause bleeding, cervical, vaginal, and uterine infections, and can even lead to infertility and death. However, not all women are exposed to unsafe abortions. Those with access to financial resources can have an abortion in private hospitals under safe sanitary conditions and with qualified health personnel, or have access to mifepristone or misoprostol pills, while the poorest women are victims of illegality. Impoverished women put their health at risk and are the ones who die from unsafe abortions. Therefore, this type of abortion is a public health problem.

According to Venezuelan feminist Teresa Sosa (2009) [1], the fight for the decriminalization of abortion in Venezuela began in the early 1980s, with the publication of the book: En Defensa del Aborto en Venezuela [In defense of Abortion in Venezuela], written in 1979 by Venezuelan author, biologist, sociologist, and feminist Giovanna Machado. According to Sosa, this book made headlines in the country’s media, promoted debates in different spaces, and became a pioneering text of the struggle in Latin America.

The reason that inspired Giovanna Machado to investigate and write such a work was the death of a woman in 1976. A woman like any other, who decided to choose when to become a mother and resorted to abortion to interrupt her pregnancy. She risked her life in the practice of unsafe and clandestine abortion and, days later, her body was found on a highway.

By 1981, the Venezuelan Medical Federation (FMV) in its XXXVI Ordinary Meeting of the Assembly for the modification of the Law on the Exercise of Medicine, presented a work entitled “Abortion in Venezuela”. Said presentation argued that abortion should be seen as a public health problem and it also recognized that countries with favorable laws on abortion had significantly reduced the problem.

The Medical Federation approved the practice of abortion in the following circumstances: for medical reasons related to the mother (when her life is in grave condition or danger); for malformations in the fetus, or when the woman has been a victim of rape. Likewise, it recommended to the National Congress the modification of the existing legislation so that the pregnancy could be legally interrupted under the causes already mentioned. On the other hand, it rejected free abortion and allowed health workers to interrupt a pregnancy only for proven therapeutic reasons, in the case of rape, or when the existence of physical or intellectual injuries may prevent or interfere with the life of the fetus.

The federation also suggested that such procedures could only be practiced at the request of the woman’s parents; at the request of her mother when there is no legitimate union or legal recognition from her father, or at the request of the woman’s legal representative through written consent. Medical specialists were the only ones empowered to certify such requests and the request had to be accepted by a Special Commission appointed for this purpose. For this, the Medical Federation convened on the creation of a commission in charge of requesting the National Congress to review the Criminal Code and carry out the pertinent reforms in the matter of abortion.

At that time, the Congress of the Republic was waiting for the reform of the Law on the Exercise of Medicine. Venezuelan academics participated in the dissertation; the media was also present. But the onslaught of the Catholic Church stepped in and caused Congress to reject the proposal on abortion. The influence exercised by the Catholic Church in the decision-making process of the national government, especially when it comes to the right of women to decide about their lives, is well known.

As the first effort to decriminalize abortion in Venezuela, the role of the Venezuela Medical Federation constituted a milestone. However, it should be noted that the emphasis rightly given to abortion as a public health problem is only one side of the phenomenon. At the same time, placing health workers in the leading role when making a decision about abortion and giving them the ultimate power to carry out the interruption or not, puts the woman in a condition of tutelage without the possibility and freedom to decide for herself.

Later, in mid-1986, a reform of the Criminal Code decriminalizing abortion in cases of rape was drafted and presented to Congress. This project was analyzed by Dr. Sonia Sgambatti in her promotion work as a professor in the Chair of Legal Medicine at Universidad Central de Venezuela, in which she elaborates on her arguments in favor of abortion. However, the criminal code was not reformed.

In the 1990s, Venezuela entered a process of political and economic instability due to a series of events, including the 1989 uprising known as “El Caracazo“, an attempted coup by Hugo Chávez in 1992, and the prosecution and removal of President Carlos Andrés Pérez, which led to the provisional presidency of Ramón J. Velásquez. These events put aside and in the dark the situation of women in the country.

In 1998, Hugo Chávez Frías won the presidential elections and a few months later a National Constituent Assembly was called through a consultative referendum held in April 1999 and approved by 80% of the votes. This was an unprecedented historical moment in which different sectors of civil society, women’s organizations, and various political parties had the opportunity to participate in the drafting of a new Constitution in harmony with contemporary times.

Women’s movements and their fight for sexual and reproductive rights had a role in the creation of the new constitution. Some of the objectives included achieving the recognition and conceptualization of sexual and reproductive rights as human rights, fostering public debates, and positioning the RedPob, a network created with the mission of promoting compliance with the commitments acquired by Venezuela at the Cairo conference. The network was made up of 12 NGOs representing the country’s sexual and reproductive health area. RedPob participated in the drafting of laws, most notably the Law on Violence against Women and the Family (1998) and in the inclusion of articles referring to sexual and reproductive rights in the Organic Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents (1998), in its role of advocate of these rights in the country. The main objective of the RedPob was the non-inclusion of the right to life from conception, which allowed the possibility for a future debate. Although the decriminalization of abortion was not a central matter in the constitutional process, it was necessary to guarantee a new text flexible enough to allow legislation on the decriminalization of abortion in times to come.

At that time, the members of the assembly recognized the existence of two agendas: a political one and the agenda of a social movement that fought for the consecration of sexual and reproductive rights as human rights. The way out at this juncture was to reach a consensus on a wording that did not limit progress regarding sexual and reproductive rights.

Some of the achievements are:

1) The non-inclusion of the right to life from conception;

2) The consecration of the right of couples to freely and responsibly decide the number of daughters and sons they wish to conceive and to have the information and the means to ensure the exercise of this right;

3) A significant progress in the provisions aimed at guaranteeing the protection, enjoyment, and exercise of human rights by citizens;

4) The recognition of the freedom of religion and worship, emphasizing that no person shall invoke religious beliefs or disciplines to evade compliance with the law or to prevent any citizen from exercising their rights.

The advent of the Fifth Republic (the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela) impaled the review of the other legal instruments following the advances of the new Constitution. Thus, a series of initiatives to modify the Criminal Code took place. This time, the Board of Directors of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), after an arduous work of more than two years carried out by a team of 15 lawyers, made public the Preliminary draft of a Criminal Code in 2004. It should be noted that although this draft contained important innovations toward the decriminalization of abortion, it was conceived behind closed doors and there was no consultation whatsoever with civil society or the women’s movement.

More recently, feminist groups in the country have taken important steps to promote the decriminalization of abortion. In 2007, within the framework of the Constitutional Reform, and again in 2010, new initiatives to reform the Criminal Code were set out. However, the proposals for the reforms of the Criminal Code were never approved, a contradictory outcome in times of a self-branded socialist and leftist Bolivarian revolution.

Later, in 2017, representatives of the Red de Colectivos La Araña Feminista, the Information Network for Safe Abortion, and the Left Cultural Front delivered a document to the National Constituent Assembly to promote an inclusive debate on decriminalization. A response is still pending.

Currently, amid a deep economic, political and social crisis, Venezuelan women face serious problems and great challenges: the increase in maternal/infant mortality rate by 67% [2] due to the precariousness of public health centers, the lack of access to medication, and high malnutrition levels due to the difficult access to food, to name just a few.

In the same context, women face the insufficiency of contraceptive methods; the few that exist are prohibitively expensive. If we add the absence of an educational policy on sexual and reproductive rights in all levels of formal education, one can conclude that there are favorable conditions for unwanted, unplanned pregnancies. In fact, Venezuela shows the second-highest pregnancy rates among young girls in the region.

Also, given that abortion is illegal, mifepristone and misoprostol pills are also banned. This favors market speculation: each pill has an exorbitant price, and it takes 12 of them to interrupt pregnancy before 12 weeks of gestation, according to the WHO protocol. In consequence, not all women can buy them. This illegality favors smuggling, the purchase and sale of the pills are carried out clandestinely through unreliable people, and given the ignorance on the characteristics of the pills, there is room for deception, like selling headache pills instead of misoprostol pills, thus increasing the level of anguish and stress for women who decide to terminate their pregnancy.

However, difficult times always require actions to counteract them or at least not to abandon the fight for the right of women to decide on their bodies. This is how in March 2018, to mark International Women’s Day, Las Comadres Púrpuras, a Venezuelan feminist, autonomous, decolonial collective published the book: Gancho, Canela y Sangre: De interrupción venimos a hablar [A hook, Cinnamon, and Blood: We come to talk about interruption] [3]

This book gathers the testimonies of 10 women who decided to interrupt their pregnancy, three of them reflecting the experience of women who accompanied others in the process. These voices are nothing more than a reflection of the difficult physical, mental, and spiritual experience that every woman who decides to interrupt goes through; as well as the violence to which she is subjected by doctors and nurses in public hospitals when they arrive in the process of abortion. But, without a doubt, these cases also reflect female empowerment, the option to choose, the freedom to decide about their lives despite sanctions. The freedom to decide whether or not we want to be mothers, when to become a mother, and how many children to have. The fight for the right to decide is arduous and we will not rest until we earn it.


[1] https://palabrademujer.wordpress.com/?s=aborto+en+venezuela

[2] https://www.aporrea.org/actualidad/a245990.html

[3] https://lascomadrespurpuras.com/descarga-gancho-canela-y-sangre/

Translated by José Rafael Medina

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