The Struggle to Decriminalize Abortion: A Conversation with Laura Cano

An abortion rights activist discusses the existing legislation in Venezuela and the path toward legalizing abortion.

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Laura Cano (Venezuelanalysis)
Laura Cano (Venezuelanalysis)
By Cira Pascual Marquina – Venezuelanalysis
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Despite Venezuela’s constitution being progressive in many senses, abortion remains illegal in the country. However, the past few years have seen the emergence of Ruta Verde [Green Route], a robust feminist coalition organized to promote the decriminalization of abortion. The Ruta Verde is currently promoting a new law that it believes would take the first steps toward legalizing abortion. We talk to Laura Cano, a young feminist militant who is part of both Ruta Verde and Tinta Violeta – an organization that combats machista violence – about the current status of abortion in Venezuela and the struggle to legalize it.

What is the legal status of abortion in Venezuela right now?

Abortion is basically illegal. In fact, Venezuela’s legal framework, when it comes to pregnancy, is one of the most restrictive on the continent: it is similar to Paraguay’s and Guatemala’s.

The only legal justification for abortion is when the mother’s life is at immediate risk, and the doctor has the exclusive prerogative to decide.

As you know, there have been advances in this struggle across the continent. Last year Mexico decriminalized abortion, and little by little Mexican states are legalizing it. This victory, of course, is rightfully claimed by feminists. The end of 2020 saw the decriminalization of abortion in Argentina, while Uruguay had already done it in 2019… For its part, Cuba has guaranteed access to abortion since 1961. That’s 61 years ago!

Of course, there are counter-tendencies too. The overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US has been a hard blow against women. It teaches us that ultraconservative currents will never cease in their effort to restrict women’s basic human rights.

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Ruta Verde march for the legalization of abortion, September 28, 2021, Caracas. The banner reads “Legal Abortion Now.” (Ruta Verde)
Ruta Verde march for the legalization of abortion, September 28, 2021, Caracas. The banner reads “Legal Abortion Now.” (Ruta Verde)

The Venezuelan Penal Code dates back to the second decade of the 20th century. Much of it has been changed since, but the four articles that penalize abortion [430-434] remain untouched. Is the text actually enforced?

Unfortunately, the Penal Code is in force when it comes to criminalizing abortion: people are prosecuted both for terminating pregnancies and for accompanying the process. On top of that, when the life of the mother is at risk and the legislation actually allows for pregnancy termination, there is no legal protocol in place. This means that there is a gray area, and many doctors end up making decisions based on their religious beliefs and personal values.

Let’s clarify this with an example. A 15-year-old girl who was raped and is pregnant cannot have an abortion?

That’s correct. The code penalizes the woman (or girl) who had the abortion and any person who accompanies or is privy to the abortion, including doctors, family members, and so on. According to the Penal Code, this “crime” can lead to six months to two years in prison. Furthermore, charges such as criminal association can be added to the original charge to make the sentence even longer.

Teen pregnancy, rape, incest, congenital malformation of the fetus – none of these are considered legal justification for an abortion in Venezuela!

The situation is so critical that in 2018 the feminist organization Faldas R introduced a nullity action to the Supreme Court. The text demands that the Penal Code articles criminalizing abortion be eliminated, highlighting the fact that they are unconstitutional. Tinta Violeta co-signed that nullity action in 2019. Unfortunately, we haven’t heard back from the Supreme Court since.

The nullity action’s text argues that – based on the human-rights focus of our Constitution – the state should decriminalize abortion in at least five basic legal grounds: when the physical or psychological health of the mother is at risk, when the pregnant person is a minor, when the pregnancy is the outcome of rape or incest, and when the fetus is not viable.

So, going back to your question, not only is a 15-year-old rape victim banned from pursuing an abortion, but the legal framework could force her into a dangerous, clandestine abortion that may bring an end to her life.

The current legislation impinges on our dignity and our lives.

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Ruta Verde march for the legalization of abortion, September 28, 2021, Caracas. (Sputnik / Hernán Cano)
Ruta Verde march for the legalization of abortion, September 28, 2021, Caracas. (Sputnik / Hernán Cano)

What is the implication of the current legislation for women and pregnant people in general?

The concept of a “pregnant person” does not exist in the Venezuelan legislation. This means that trans and non-binary people are further invisibilized, particularly when it comes to terminating a pregnancy.

As it is, criminalizing abortion invisibilizes a large swath of the population. Affluent people can look for safe options if they want to pursue an abortion. This is the case here and everywhere, and that is why we say that criminalizing abortion is a class-based policy.

Here, in Venezuela, access to information and to medical and economic resources to pursue a safe abortion is very limited among poor, working-class women. The information available is generally provided by grassroots organizations that have limited reach. Still, feminist organizations are doing important work on this matter.

On top of that, there is the issue of social ostracizing: a national debate on abortion hasn’t happened, so patriarchal precepts are alive and well. That is why we call for both the legal and social decriminalization of abortion.

The criminalization of abortion is part of a general context of limited public policy initiatives when it comes to sexual and reproductive health – including sex education and free access to contraceptives. This generates a situation that hurts the human rights of a large swath of the population.

Are there statistics available on the impact of criminalizing abortion?

Official data tells that clandestine abortions are the third cause of maternal mortality in Venezuela. However, since the practice is illegal and pursued in clandestinity, we know that many cases go unreported.

The World Health Organization states that abortion is a basic human right, adding that, from an intersectional perspective, pregnancy termination rights help narrow the existing inequality gap between people due to their gender, race, and economic situation.

That is why, in Tinta Violeta and in most of the organizations that are part of the Ruta Verde, we believe that not only will legalizing abortion save lives; it will also help reduce inequalities in our society, promote life with dignity, and limit the extent of discrimination and gender-based violences.

At the end of the day, the struggle for the legalization of abortion is a class struggle.

In these times of crisis, it is very important that the state recognize our sexual and reproductive rights. There also has to be a cultural transformation, but sexual education and decriminalizing abortion will go a long way in that direction.

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Ruta Verde assembly, September 10, 2022, Caracas. (Ruta Verde)
Ruta Verde assembly, September 10, 2022, Caracas. (Ruta Verde)

You mentioned the Ruta Verde. Can you tell us more about this initiative?

Ruta Verde is a feminist, grassroots campaign for the right to terminate pregnancies. Founded in 2021, it places particular emphasis on access to information and on generating appropriate social and legal conditions to pursue an abortion. We do not want to be criminalized when we take autonomous decisions over our bodies!

Ruta Verde brings together organizations and people that represent different political tendencies, thus avoiding polarization in a struggle that need not be polarized. Basically, we all share one premise: struggling for legal and social change, so that women and pregnant people will be able to decide for themselves. We work together for the fundamental human rights of girls, women, trans, and non-binary people.

Ruta Verde is a space for reflection, connection, strategy, and alliance building, and struggle toward the legal and social decriminalization of abortion.

One year ago, on September 28, 2021, we saw the largest mobilization for the decriminalization of abortion in our history. As September 28, 2022, approaches, we are working to take the streets again with the diversity, joy, and combative spirit that characterize our movement.

Our immediate objective is to eliminate Articles 430 to 434 of the Penal Code, which criminalize abortion.

How have state institutions responded to the Ruta Verde demands?

Last year, on September 28, we had a meeting with the National Assembly’s Commission on Social Development, and we presented our proposed Organic Law for Sexual Rights and Reproductive Rights. Of course, our work didn’t stop there: we have continued to lobby and, while there has been no substantive progress, we have seen a willingness to debate abortion in certain sectors of the National Assembly for the first time.

In any case, since the proposal has not reached the Assembly’s floor, we are now advancing through a dual track: lobbying and collecting signatures. Article 74 of Venezuela’s constitution grants the people the right to bring a law to the National Assembly floor if 1% of the electoral census subscribes the proposal.

The organizations and people who make up Ruta Verde are now in the midst of a drive to gather thousands of signatures. When we reach 1% of the electoral census [21,000 signatures], the National Assembly will be legally bound to debate the proposal.

We have gathered more than 3000 signatures so far. We are doing assemblies, educational workshops, and signature drives, and our upcoming march on September 28 will be an important chance to make ourselves heard.

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Signature drives for the Organic Law for Sexual Rights and Reproductive Rights. (Ruta Verde)
Signature drives for the Organic Law for Sexual Rights and Reproductive Rights. (Ruta Verde)

Can you explain the proposed Organic Law for Sexual Rights and Reproductive Rights to us?

The law has six chapters that grant the right to information and sex education; the right to be recognized according to one’s gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation; the right to pleasure and erotism; and the right to freely determine sexual association. Of course, the law also touches upon people’s reproductive rights; that would entail family planning and contraceptives (including the morning-after pill) becoming easily accessible while punishing obstetric violence.

Additionally, the law’s final chapter guarantees that, when the mother’s life is at risk (which is the only situation in which abortion is legal in Venezuela), the Penal Code will actually be activated. A legal mechanism is needed so that medical personnel in public and private medical centers cannot obstruct an abortion by alleging personal beliefs.

Finally, the law closes with a disposition that would eliminate Articles 430 to 434 of the Penal Code. In other words, the law would pave the way for the decriminalization of abortion.

We think that this is a progressive law. It recognizes the rights of pregnant people, women, and children. Furthermore, it sets the bases for humanized childbirth.

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