On a Tuesday night, with only a month to go before the referendum, I was pulling my hair out with the frustration of living thousands of miles away from home and my ineligibility to vote. Inspired by the Repeal Global groups all over the world I decided to make one last attempt to unite the small and disperse Irish community in Guatemala. Within 24 hours I had secured support from Colectiva Feminista Artesanas, a venue, three speakers, and even arranged with a friend to bring some Repeal merch from Ireland. Now all I had to do was round up some stray Irish people in Guatemala.
I sent messages out across cyberspace and managed to track down a few Irish through persistence and some random coincidences. So on Friday the 11th of May we gathered in Antigua, Guatemala’s most well preserved colonial city and a magnet for hundreds of foreign tourists each day, under the Antigua’s most iconic landmark: the arch. We were joined by Irish people from Laois, Sligo, Cork and Tipperary, a Guatemalan woman of Irish descent and Guatemalan friends and allies. Some of us were meeting for the first time. From the arch we made our way to the Casa del Mango (literally the Mango House), a local cultural centre and art gallery where the Colectiva Feminista Artesanas were ready to receive us for a public forum on abortion in Ireland and Guatemala.
The panel included the President of the Guatemalan Association of Gynaecologists and Obstetrics, Dr. Linda Valencia a fierce advocate for women’s rights in Guatemala, Alejandra Hernandez from the local ‘Colectiva Feminista Artesanas’, Leah Desmond, from Cork but living in London since she was 17, and a member of Doctors for Choice for the last seven years, Andrea Ramirez, Guatemalan woman, who lived in Ireland for 9 years, and my good self, from Cork but living in human rights in Guatemala for the last four years.
Women’s Lives at Risk
The focus of the discussion for the evening was on the impact of the criminalisation of abortion in Ireland and Guatemala, particularly the legal, medical and social impacts on women. Both countries have a very similar regime regarding abortion: the only circumstance in which it is permitted to have an abortion is when there is am immediate and substancial threat to the life of the mother. Though there is a slightly broader interpretation of this in Guatemala due to the absence of a constitutional restriction, as in Ireland, many Doctors do not realise it is permitted to provide a termination even in this limited circumstance.
There are an estimated 65,000 clandestine abortions carried out in Guatemala each year. Misoprostol (available legally here) is becoming the preferred method, with fewer and fewer women seeking ‘backstreet abortions’ (where unsafe, unsterilised and non-surgical instruments or liquids are used to terminate a pregnancy but often cause major injury or infection) that put their health and their lives in danger.
In Guatemala, as in Ireland, accessing a safe abortion is a privilege for the women who can pay for it at a private hospital or by travelling to Mexico City or Miami — the two typical abortion destinations. Thus it is overwhelmingly poor, rural and indigenous women who are left having to seek out clandestine abortions and whose lives are most at risk. According to Dr. Valencia one quarter off all admissions to maternity hospitals in Guatemala are for post-abortion complications and it is the third leading cause of maternal death in Guatemala.
Dr. Linda Valencia, spoke of how here training in a public hospital in Guatemala opened her eyes to the reality of life for women where the average fertility rate is 3.8 children per woman but it is not unusual for women to have up to 14 children — not unlike Ireland a couple of generations ago. She regularly treated women who had procured a backstreet abortion and who only sought medical assistance when they were gravely ill. Most of the women she treated were from poor, rural communities for whom a backstreet abortion was their last option and often only option, an act of desperation that put their health and their lives at risk. They were so scared and ashamed to admit that they had sought an abortion that they remained silent, even when speaking out would have meant faster intervention to save their lives.
Linda began making clinical visits to rural communities, travelling the length and breadth of Guatemala to provide reproductive health care to women in the most impoverished and isolated communities, where health facilities were almost non-existent. From these travels she understood why the women arrived at the hospital in Guatemala city, were often so close to death. Women who experienced emergencies during pregnancy, birth or as a result of post-abortion complications often had to travel great distances, over bad roads, in pick-up trucks rather than ambulances, to get help. Often it was too late. In fact, Guatemala has the highest maternal mortality rate in Latin America, after Bolivia. Coming face to face with the reality for the majority of women in Guatemala since then she has been a fierce advocate for sexual and reproductive health rights. You can learn more about her work in this inspiring report from Al Jazeera.
Andrea Ramirez spoke about her experience of Ireland’s almost total prohibition of abortion. During her first year living in Ireland she became pregnant. She was 20 years old, living away from home for the first time, with family in Cork, but otherwise without a wider support network. She and her boyfriend decided a termination would be best for both of them. She had family in Holland who helped her make arrangements to travel there for a termination. In the mean time she sought counselling support from a crisis pregnancy agency in Dublin. She spoke about how naive she felt about the situation in Ireland and had no idea that many crisis pregnancy agencies were run by Catholic, anti-choice groups. After an initial consultation she began to receive regular phone calls from the staff at the clinic, including a priest, who at first tried to convince her to look for alternatives and that they would help her with the adoption process. When she told them that wasn’t an option the phone calls became more sinister and threatening. In one conversation the priest called her a slut and a murderer. Alone in Ireland and only 20 years old, she was shocked and dismayed by this level of harassment. They called her the night before she was due to travel with more threats and when she arrived at the clinic in Amsterdam they told her they had received a phone call from Ireland by someone claiming to be her boyfriend saying that she shouldn’t go ahead with the procedure. In fact it was once again the priest from the clinic.
As traumatic as this experience was, having to travel for healthcare available legally in almost all other European countries and the harassment she received from the clinic, Andrea has no doubts, nor regrets, that she made the right choice for herself at the time. She continued living in Ireland for another 8 years before moving back to be with her family in Guatemala. On a return visit in 2017 she participated in the X-ile project. While she has always been open and honest about her abortion with family and friends she said being able to share her experience with the public in Ireland, through her participation in the X-ile project, was cathartic. It helped her gain closure on what had been a bitter chapter of her experience living in Ireland.
Leah Desmond of Doctors for Choice, has been in Guatemala for a couple of months, taking a break from practicing medicine by doing a work exchange at an ashram in Lake Atitlan. She too expressed her frustration at being unable to vote, having lived abroad since she was 17. She has been actively campaigning to raise awareness about the implications of the 8th Amendment for medical care for all women and pregnant people in Ireland. She highlighted the impact of 8th Amendment on mental health , as consideration that is often overlooked or dismissed when it comes to discussing the reasons people might want or need an abortion. On the one hand pregnancy can aggravate certain mental health concerns such as bi-polar disorder or psychosis. On the other hand many treatments for mental health conditions are incompatible with pregnancy and are thus suspended during pregnancy. Finally she spoke about the burden on the mental health of any person who must undergo enforced pregnancy, birth and parenthood, because all other options are denied for them. Once again, it is people with few resources or the inability to travel who are most impacted by the 8th, and a disproportionate number of these are women and pregnant people with mental health concerns.
Alejandra Hernandéz from the Colectiva Feminista Artesanas spoke of the weight of stigma that is attached to the issue of abortion. Most women in Guatemala who have undergone an abortion are afraid to admit it to anyone and carry a tremendous burden of shame and silence. She spoke of the fact that as well as being criminalised, abortion in Guatemala, and often the use of contraceptives, is completely demonised with few people actually understanding what an abortion really means. She emphasised the need to create more safe spaces to allow women to share their stories and forums for to educate the public on the issue.
The Tide is Turning
All speakers agreed that one of the greatest hurdles to overcome in terms of women being able to access safe abortion and post-abortion care, is the social stigma attached to it, which keeps women in silence and often puts their health and lives in danger. The participants from Ireland shared how in Ireland the situation was quite similar until very recently. The tide began to turn in Ireland once we could put a human face to the abortion issue. Unfortunately, the first of those face would be Savita’s. It took the tragic and preventable circumstances of her death for our country to wake up. Since 2012 more and more brave women have began to openly speak of their abortions, from the tragedy of having to travel to end a much wanted pregnancy due to fatal foetal abnormality, to the ‘everyday stories’ of thousands of women who for a multitude of reasons, couldn’t or didn’t want to continue a pregnancy to term.
We closed the evening with the reflection that once you know and understand the complicated, sometimes tragic, reality faced by women and pregnant people across the world and the risks they will take in order to end a pregnancy, there is no way you can remain indifferent, no way you can continue to deny them a choice.
Guatemala and Ireland are worlds apart, and yet there are startling similarities between the situation of women in both countries, in terms of access to reproductive health. The secrecy, the shame, the silence is ever present. Public policy guided by Christian a morality that would protect the unborn over all other concerns, including the life and health of the person carrying the foetus or indeed the future awaiting that child. Perhaps Ireland’s proximity to Britain and the easier access to online pills are the principal reasons that we do not have more women presenting in hospitals with a uterus that was punctured by a coat hanger, or knitting needles or injected with bleach.
Guatemala still has a long way to go before the politicians are ready to legislate and the public is ready to accept free, safe and legal access to abortion. Ireland has come far in 35 years, but nothing will change unless we repeal the 8th on May 25th.