Confronting Anti-Choice Forces in Puerto Rico

— Ruth Arroyp, Rafael Bernabe and Nancy Herzig

THROUGHOUT THE TWENTIETH century a considerable number of colonial administrators—both North American and Puerto Rican—have considered Puerto Rico to be overpopulated. For them, how to control Puerto Rico’s "population problem" has been a central concern. In the post-World War II period, one "solution" to this problem was openly promoted by the colonial government: the massive emigration of Puerto Rican workers to the U.S. mainland. Furthermore, at least since the 1930, another "solution" to the "overpopulation problem" was pursued: the massive sterilization of Puerto Rican women.

By 1985 it was estimated that 39% of all Puerto Rican women of child-bearing age had been sterilized—one of the highest rates of sterilization in the world. Investigations by Peta Henderson Murray and others have conclusively demonstrated what many women knew already: a considerable portion of those sterilizations were performed without the consent of the women concerned, or that their "consent" was obtained through varying degrees of coercion or misinformation.

While sterilization was promoted and easily obtained, contraceptives were unavailable and abortion was illegal. Furthermore, in the early 1960s Puerto Rican women were turned into human guinea pigs as they were used by pharmaceutical corporations to test oral contraceptives. These experiments resulted in the death of several women and the suffering of an unknown number from the side effects of excessively high dosages of hormones used.

In the absence of a strong, influential women’s movement, in the early 1960s the struggle to denounce these abuses in Puerto Rico was led by two groups: the independence movement and the Catholic Church. The independentistas denounced sterilization abuse from a fundamentally nationalist perspective while the church did so from a religious "moralist" perspective.

For the independence movement, sterilization was yet another attempt by colonialism to obliterate the Puerto Rican nation. Independentistas could rightfully point out other aspects of the colonial regime or other policies implemented by it which sought to deny the very existence of a Puerto Rican culture or nation, such as the attempt to impose English on a Spanish-speaking people and the severe repression of the independence movement in general and of the Nationalist Party in particular.

However, while the independence movement denounced sterilization abuse, it did not denounce the unavailability of safe contraceptive methods or the illegality of abortion. Few in the independence movement denounced the conditions under which women could and did obtain clandestine and illegal abortions.

But the strictly nationalist perspective, which framed the independentista criticism of sterilization abuse, also had other negative consequences. It led some independentistas to argue that it was the duty of Puerto Rican women to have children in order to save the nation from genocide. This natalist perspective was, of course, not compatible with a defense of abortion rights.

In fact, this pro-natalism prevented (and still prevents) most independentistas from understanding that while many women were coerced or misinformed, in the absence of abortion and of access to contraceptive methods,3 not insignificant number of women saw la operadOn—as sterilization became popularly known—or participation in experiments with the pill as a means of somehow limiting their otherwise never-ending reproductive activity.

In other words, the strictly nationalist perspective, while formulating many valid criticisms of sterilization abuse, was nevertheless absolutely incapable of linking that criticism to the building of a movement for women’s rights. On the contrary, its criticism was often linked to natalist doctrines of the Catholic Church (of which the least said the better).

Abortion in Puerto Rico Today

The legal situation surrounding abortion in Puerto Rico todai is somewhat complicated due to the island’s coloniafstatus. Puerto Rico’s Penal Code declares abortion illegal unless it is performed to preserve the wellbeing and health of the pregnant woman. The vague phrasing of this statute gave the courts certain leeway in interpreting what health or well-being meant.

In 1973, Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the United States. It created the three-trimester framework (since then eroded by other Supreme Court decisions) and recognized the right of women to abortion in the first twenty-four weeks of pregnancy (with possible restrictions in the second trimester, but only in order to protect the life and health of women). Since Roe v. Wade, abortion has also been legal in Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, a few years later a paradoxical situation arose that turned out to be legally favorable to women.

The colonial constitution of Puerto Rico explicitly recognizes the right of privacy. On that basis, the Puerto Rican Supreme Court ruled in 1980 in Pueblo v. Duarte that the right to abortion recognized through Roe v. Wade for the first twenty-four weeks of pregnancy extends in Puerto Rico to the entire pregnancy. In other words, in Puerto Rico every woman "in consultation with her doctor" has the right to obtain an abortion at any stage of her pregnancy. In Pueblo v. Duarte the Court also determined that women under twenty-one do not need authorization from their parents to obtain an abortion.

In spite of this liberal extension of Roe v. Wade in Puerto Rico, women’s access to abortion remains rather limited. Public, government-funded hospitals do not provide abortion services. Most private hospitals operating in Puerto Rico have links with religious groups or institutions, such as the Catholic Church, and thus do not perform abortions.

In Puerto Rico today there are approximately twelve clinics which perform abortions, most of them located in the San Juan metropolitan area. This geographical concentration poses problems for many poor women in particular. Women who do not live in the San Juan area are forced to travel to the capital. Thus, many women do not only have to pay $200 to $300 for an abortion, they must also pay for transportation, food and often childcare, while simultaneously missing work (and losing pay) for at least one day. Follow-up visits further increase these expenses.

In spite of these difficulties, it has been estimated that perhaps 50,000 abortions are performed in Puerto Rico every year. According to research carried out by PRO-MLIJER, a feminist project at the University of Puerto Rico-Cayey Campus, 82% of all abortions in Puerto Rico are performed within the first eight weeks of pregnancy and 96% within the first twelve weeks. Ninety percent of the women seeking abortions are twenty years old or older, 67% are married, 66% already have children and 74% define themselves as Catholics.

There is absolutely no question that through the years a growing number of Puerto Rican women are terminating unwanted pregnancies through legal, if expensive, abortions. We must also point out that the clinics are used by women from other islands of the Caribbean, above all from the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Anti-Choice Campaign and A Response

Nevertheless, in recent years in Puerto Rico we have witnessed a growing campaign—led by the Catholic Church and other religious groups—to restrict women’s lives in general and reproductive and abortion rights in particular.

It was in response to the constant lobbying against abortion carried out by institutions, especially the Catholic Church, right-wing religious leaders gorge Raschke), pro-censorship groups (Morality in Media), and anti-abortion groups like Pro-Vida, that the Grupo Pro Derechos Reproductivos (Reproductive Rights Group) was formed in 1991. This group brings together fourteen feminist and political (mainly socialist) organizations as well as individuals who support reproductive rights.

Participating organizations include the Organización Puertorriquena de la Mujer Trabajadora (Puerto Rican Organization of Working Women), Taller Salud (Health Workshop), Instituto Puertorriqueno de Derechos Civiles (Puerto Rican Civil Rights Institute), Sabana Litigation, Taller de Formación PolItica (Political Formation PO Workshop), Centro de Investigaci ones, Estudios y Recursosde la Mujer (Women’s Research, Study, and Resource Center), Asociación Pro -Familia (Pro-Family Association), and Teatreras Dondequiera (a women’s drama collective).

Early in 1992 Puerto Rico’s legislature began the  process of amending the existing insular Penal Code. The initial drafts of the new code further liberalized the existing section on abortion, making the recognition of this right more solid from a legal perspective. Furthermore, the proposed amendments were also to eliminate the homophobic section of the code, which referred to the "crime" of "sodomy."

As these proposals became known, rightist and religious fundamentalist groups launched an aggressive lobbying and media campaign, succeeding in completely reversing the proposed changes. Thus, a new set of amendments emerged that went as far as imposing jail sentences on women who sought abortions. In addition, the new code was designed to greatly restrict, if not ban, the distribution of printed materials advocating the right to abortion and just about any other public expression in favor of abortion rights. Some of these amendments were certainly unconstitutional. They would furthermore remain dead letter as long as at least some portions of Roe v. Wade were upheld by the courts.

The opponents of abortion rights counted on Roe v. Wade being progressively weakened by future decisions, thus making some of the new restrictions enforceable. In the new amendments the homophobic nature of the "sodomy" statute was underlined, as it was reformulated to only apply to activities of persons of the same gender. Sentences for this "crime" were also increased.

The legislature was unable to approve the new Penal Code, thus these changes have not been enacted—yet. We must nevertheless point out that in the debates regarding the new code, not one legislator defended a woman’s right to choose. Particularly shameful was the attitude of the only senator from the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueno (Puerto Rico Independence Party), who did nothing to defend this fundamental right of Puerto Rican women, indeed of all women.

Recently, anti-choice groups and their legislative allies in the ruling Partido. Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party) have sought to amend Puerto Rico’s Civil Code by including in it a statement that life begins at conception. The promoters of this amendment accept that under Roe v. Wade such a declaration may not be used to limit abortion rights: to use their own words, they conceive it as a statement to all women that the legislature favors "birth" over abortion.

The opponents of abortion rights are deploying yet another weapon: they are intensely courting the newly appointed Secretary of Health. They want to limit access to abortion through the elaboration of an extensive and restrictive new set of regulations for women’s health clinics. The proposed regulations are not designed tto make abortion safer for women but to make providing abortion services unnecessarily and prohibitively expensive and impossibly complex, thus shutting down many clinics without outlawing abortion outright But anti-choice activists have not limited themselves to the legislative or bureaucratic-administrative arenas.

New Anti-Choice Tactics

In October 1992, Father Patrick Welch, a Redemtorist priest and director of one of the most prestigious private Catholic schools in Puerto Rico (Colegio Notre Dame in Caguas), and his self-proclaimed pro-life rescue team, comprised mostly of children and young people from his school, some of their parents and Welch’s own staff workers, began to actively block entrances to clinics and to harass those who entered. Their tactics included entering the clinics themselves, frightening the patients with their presence and threats and even physically assaulting health workers inside.

They also videotaped pro-choice activists and women entering the clinics. Pro-Choice activists (one of the authors of this article, for example) received death threats as well. On at least one occasion Welch brought with him several armed; off-duty policemen to act as bodyguards.

Police were not only reluctant to arrest or confront Welch and his followers, but in many cases defended what they interpreted to be his right to "free expression.’ Although the Taller tie FormaciOn Poiltica and other socialists had no illusions that the police could be relied on to defend our rights, this fact soon became evident to many members of the Grupo Pro Derechos Reproductivos, regardless of their political views. As Welch continued his attacks on women seeking abortion services, the Grupo began to organize clinic defense. Most confrontations with Welch and his allies took place in two clinics that his group chose as their main targets.

A significant test of our own forces came in late December 1992 and early January 1993 when we received information that Welch had invited two extreme right-wing, religious, anti-choice North American groups to Puerto Rico: The Lambs of Christ (also known as Missionaries for the Unborn) and Rescue America (the same group linked to the recent murder of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Florida). Several representatives of these groups came to Puerto Rico: Father Norman Weslin (a prominent "Lamb" of Christ and former U.S. Navy officer), Mark Clemens (linked to Rescue America), Ed Martin, and Don Treshman (the latter one of the main leaders of Rescue America). Martin and Treshman left after participating in a clinic blockade while Weslin and Clemens stayed on to participate in further blockades and activities.

Clemens claims to be in Puerto Rico to lecture young women on chastity and to conduct a study on "morality and immorality" (among the latter he includes the activities of women’s health clinics, pro-choice groups, gay and lesbian rights groups and women who seek abortion services). Until recently Clemens has been in charge of video-taping pro-choice activists as well as women who attended the clinics. As opposed to almost all members of the Grupo Pro Derechos Reproductivos who have jobs, families, housework and other struggles to attend to, these men are full-timers.

On the day that the members of the anti-choice groups were supposed to arrive, we held a press conference to denounce their presence. We presented a video clip on their violent tactics, which had been aired on "60 Minutes.’ The press was responsive and many individual journalists, mostly women, reported our pro-choice message. For some of them this implied maneuvering around editors and owners who do not wish to attract criticisms from the Church or from other conservative groups.

In fact, Welch and his followers picketed the offices of one newspaper (El Vocero) because it publishes commercials for abortion services. Actually only one newspaper came out editorially supporting a pro-choice position: the English language newspaper, San Juan Star. One of our media objectives has been to obtain at least equal time and coverage for the pro-choice position. Prior to our efforts, the press had basically ignored positions other than those of the anti-choice groups and the Catholic Church. While the impact we have on public opinion is still limited, today most people are aware that besides the Church and other anti-choice groups, there exists in Puerto Rico a movement to defend women’s rights to abortion.

We have also sought to shift the defense of abortion rights from presenting it as a necessary evil to demanding it as a woman’s right. We have conceived of our struggle as part of a larger struggle to secure democratic rights, as part of achieving a more democratic, pluralistic and truly tolerant society (tolerant of differences, not of injustice, oppression or exploitation, which are anything but democratic).

Although none of those actively involved in the Grupo Pro Derechos Reproductivos oppose abortion, the group has made it clear that a person need not agree with abortion to oppose the position of the Church or of anti-choice groups: it is only necessary to support the right to abortion. This has permitted us to establish a dialogue with many who are opposed to abortion on religious or moral grounds but who agree those views should not be imposed on others. To most of us (not all) in the pro-choice movement, this is a perspective which still oppresses women and limits their choices, but may also evolve in a more consistently feminist direction.

Socialists within the movement have also raised another issue: the need to defend access to abortion for all women, something which cannot be obtained through the mere recognition of a legal right, important as that may be. Although consensus seems to exist—even with those not identified as socialists—that we should struggle for free abortion on demand, the practical activities of the group have been limited to defending legal rights and services as they exist. In that sense our campaign still retains a defensive character.

As part of our campaign we have monitored the activities of anti-choice groups, making a point of being present wherever they go to make opposing statements to the press. We organized a "reception" of 200 pro-choice activists with banners and placards at the airport for the anti-choice groups arriving from the United States. We subsequently (noisily) followed Welch and his allies to the parking lot.

On another occasion, when the Catholic Church organized a "pro-life" demonstration in front of the capitol, the Grupo Pro-Derechos Reproductivos responded with a counter-demonstration across the street The Church provided buses for the mobilization of about 1000 people from various parts of the island (most of these were school children and clergy). This is the largest activity they have been able to organize. However, the religious right showed its true colors to those present and to the media. They carried signs denouncing "masonic democracy" while others displayed the symbols of Franco’s Falange. Other signs called for the elimination of social "undesirables" such as lesbians, feminists, prostitutes, drug addicts and Jews.
Welch’s and his followers’ activities were characterized by such fanaticism and arrogance (on one occasion they even performed an exorcism on the pro-choice activists defending a clinic) that public opinion soon began to perceptively turn against them.

Patrick Welch has supposedly left Puerto Rico to "study" in Rome. This has reduced the number of clinic blockades or anti-choice large demonstrations. However, they have intensified their attempts to limit women’s rights through legislation and lobbying.

In addition, the positions of the Church on sex, the family, women and abortion continue to prevail in the press and at many levels of Puerto Rican society. As the economic crisis escalates in Puerto Rico, the dominant sectors look increasingly to the Church to provide moral justification for state repression and for their so-called war against crime Last year the Church led a march against crime, which included abortion among the "crimes" to be combatted.

Socialists and Independentistas

The participation of socialist and progressive organizations in the defense of abortion rights has to be approached from a historical and general point of view. The nationalist Puerto Rican independence movement did not have an orientation toward women’s liberation. Indeed some sectors of it adopted a traditionalist, fanulist, conservative perspective on many issues. After a brief episode of experimentation with socialist rhetoric in the early and mid-1970s, the leadership of the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueo has become a new vehicle for many of those conservative notions within the independence movement.

Furthermore, certain sectors of the independence movement linked to the Nationalist Party have taken a public stance against abortion rights. They see abortion as an attempt by imperialism to suppress the Puerto Rican nation. In fact this argument has been used by the anti-choice forces to drum up support from independentistas for their campaign against women’s rights.

On the other hand, sizeable portions of the socialist left are going through a period of disorientation, fed by the growing conviction (in the face of the collapse of the USSR and Eastern Europe, the destruction of the Grenadian Revolution, the electoral defeat of Sandinistas, the non-victory of the FMLN in El Salvador, etc.) that socialism is no longer a viable, credible or relevant political objective. Thus sections of the left have progressively shifted back to a nationalist perspective which emphasizes the need for "national unity" against imperialism and colonialism.

From this nationalist perspective it is easy to perceive women’s struggles as something tending to divide the nation, and therefore to be postponed until national independence is secured. Additionally, for some independentistas it has been difficult to understand that sterilization abuse is not the main reproductive rights question in Puerto Rico today. In fact, we feel that their insistence on the centrality of sterilization abuse corresponds to their unwillingness to adopt a serious attitude towards building a militant women’s movement.

Nevertheless, Claridad—the weekly newspaper of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party—to its credit has consistently published articles by members of the Grupo Pro Derechos Reproductivos and others in defense of the right to choose. Pensamiento Critico, an independent socialist magazine, and Bandera Rojo, published by the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (Socialist Workers’ Movement) have also published articles in defense of abortion rights.

It must be pointed out that a considerable portion of those active in the defense of abortion rights are independentistas or socialists, or have been active in those movements in the past. At present the Puerto Rican left is in such a state of disarray that it can hardly intervene organizationally in this or any other social movement. The left is thus to a great extent, represented by those militant individuals who join and actively participate in those movements.

Some in the socialist left have felt uneasy about clinic defenses because the clinics in question are privately owned. They felt that defending the clinics was dangerously close to a defense of private property or private enterprise. Our position has been that in keeping anti-choice forces from entering, occupying and physically damaging the clinics or from harassing women, we were defending women’s access to the clinics and not necessarily (in our case certainly not) endorsing the way in which abortion services are provided today under capitalism.

Some carried their objection to defending private property to the rather bizarre conclusion that defending women’s rights to control their own bodies transforms the body into private property and is thus in contradiction with a socialist and collectivist perspective. Against this we have argued that personal autonomy, which certainly includes control over one’s own body, is not in contradiction with socialism, but is a major aspect of socialism as we conceive it.

Other groups have also felt uneasy about using the court system, particularly the federal courts, in the struggle to defend abortion rights. In Puerto Rico the federal courts in particular have been used repeatedly to repress the independence movement. Nevertheless, most pro-choice activists believe that we should use all those methods of struggle which enable us to protect our rights and strengthen our influence. Filing a case against Welch and his associates in the San Juan Federal Court enabled us to obtain crucial information about anti-choice groups in Puerto Rico and their links to those in the United States. (Our suit is in many ways similar to those filed by groups against the blockades organized by Operation Rescue, Rescue America and other organizations. In our case the Court has not yet handed down its decision.)

Finally, some have felt uncomfortable about calling on the police to remove or arrest anti-choice blockaders.

Needless to say, independentistas and socialists have always been victims of diverse forms of police repression. In fact, what those of us active in clinic defenses have repeatedly witnessed, is the reluctance of the police and other state officials (judges, for example) to defend our rights. Arrests were only carried out when situations became unbearably tense (thanks to our presence and militancy) and only after hours of blockading by anti-choice activists. (Since then we have learned the importance of getting to the clinics before the blockaders). It is precisely the anti-choice movement in Puerto Rico that has used tactics traditionally used by the police and FBI against independentistas and socialists: photographing and videotaping activists and their children as well as their cars and even attempting to have them dismissed from their jobs.

To defeat those who attack reproductive rights from ILL different directions, our movement must link up with other movements or groups affected by such attacks, such as gay and lesbian activists, healthcare workers, young people and students. One of the most common "accusations" leveled at the pro-choice movement in Puerto Rico is that it is led by gays and lesbians. Thus it is impossible to defend abortion rights in the island today without taking up the defense of gay and lesbian rights. Until not long ago this question was taboo within the Puerto Rican left.

For us in the Taller de Formación Poiltica there exists no contradiction between defending abortion rights, reproductive rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights and struggling for self-determination. On the contrary it is our conviction that the only social force that can defeat imperialism is precisely the combined force of a self-organized and militant working class joining with all the other oppressed sectors of society: any step toward self-organization is thus, for us, also a step toward Puerto Rico’s self-determination.

January-February 1994