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BOLIVIA: Safe Abortion Nearly Impossible Even in Cases of Rape

Bernarda Claure

LA PAZ, Jun 8 2007 (IPS) - Bolivia’s constituent assembly has just two months left to finishing rewriting the country’s constitution. In 10 months of sessions, it has approved a single article, regarding the right to hold football matches at high altitudes, in response to the International Football Federation’s (FIFA) ban on high-altitude international matches.

Among the thorny issues being debated by the 255 assembly members, 134 of whom belong to the leftwing governing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), is the question of the right to life, linked to the subject of the legalisation of abortion.

A proposal set forth by the assembly’s Committee on Rights, Duties and Guarantees to enshrine the right to life from conception in the new constitution has triggered heated debate on the right of women, and especially rape victims, to interrupt an unwanted pregnancy.

The study “Breaking the Silence” by the Ombudsman’s Office and the non-governmental Coordinadora de la Mujer reports that rapes account for 64 percent of all documented physical attacks on women, and that underage girls are the victims in over half of all cases of rape.

Around 200 complaints of sexual abuse of girls are filed annually in this South American country, according to statistics provided to IPS by Julia Velasco, coordinator of the National News Agency for the Rights of the Child (ANNI).

Girls who become pregnant as a result of rape have little chance of actually obtaining a safe, legal abortion, even though abortion is permitted in Bolivia to save the life of the woman, to preserve her physical health, and in cases of rape or incest.

In overwhelmingly Catholic Latin America, abortion on demand is only legal in Cuba, Guyana and Mexico City.

And although therapeutic abortion is legal in cases of rape in all countries in the region except Nicaragua, women in such circumstances usually find themselves caught up in a lengthy, complex administrative and legal process to achieve authorisation from the courts and then find a provider willing to carry out the abortion in safe conditions.

In many cases, they end up resorting to clandestine abortions, which are often practiced in unsanitary conditions.

The rightwing opposition Podemos coalition triggered a heated debate in the constituent assembly with its motion to guarantee the right to life from the moment of conception. The clause was approved in the Committee on Rights, in which the coalition holds a majority of seats, over the objections of three of the committee members, including Loyola Guzmán of the MAS.

The question will be resolved in a plenary session of the assembly, since the rules establish that clauses on which unanimous approval is not achieved in committee must be put up to debate and a vote by the entire assembly.

Any proposed articles not approved by the plenary assembly will be decided directly by voters in a constitutional referendum.

“The right to life starting at conception should be preserved in the constitution, to prevent the passage of other laws that might run counter to it,” said Miguel Manzanera, director of the Institute of Bioethics at the San Pablo Catholic University of Bolivia.

Guzmán argues that the new constitution should reflect the language used in the American Convention on Human Rights, to which the Bolivian state is a signatory since 1979.

Article four of the Convention states that “Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”

It is the phrase “in general” that Guzmán emphasises. “Stating that the right to life is recognised in general terms shows that special circumstances are also recognised,” such as pregnancies that result from rape, she told IPS.

A similar focus was taken by the non-governmental Women and Constituent Assembly Project, which drew up a document that proposes respect for the right to life and for sexual and reproductive rights as well.

“We believe the question of abortion should be addressed in the context of debating and drafting a national law, rather than as part of the process of rewriting the constitution,” Katia Uriona, coordinator of the Project, explained to IPS.

Women’s groups recently held a protest march in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, carrying signs that read “a girl who is the victim of rape does not want to be a mother.”

Red-Ada, a local women’s rights group, documented 250 rapes of minors in Santa Cruz alone from January to August 2006. In 248 cases, the victims were girls between the ages of 13 and 15, according to figures from the Defensoría de la Niñez (Children’s Ombudsman’s Office) in that eastern province.

Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (CDD), a partner organisation of the international Catholics for a Free Choice, estimates that only 10 percent of all rapes are reported in Bolivia.

“That is because when a woman, adolescent or girl files a complaint, the judges and doctors and other hospital staff take an inquisitorial approach,” CDD/Bolivia coordinator Teresa Lanza told IPS.

A 10-year-old pregnant rape victim went from one courtroom to another last year in the central province of Cochabamba seeking judicial authorisation for an abortion, without any luck despite a certificate from the Bolivian Society of Gynecology and Obstetrics that clearly established that the pregnancy posed a risk to her life.

But a legal ruling is no guarantee either. In 2002, doctors in the Viedma public hospital, also in Cochabamba, refused to perform an abortion in the case of a 12-year-old girl who had been raped by her stepfather, even after a judge authorised an abortion. In the end, the girl underwent an illegal clandestine abortion.

Lawyer Samuel Zenteno told IPS that if the constituent assembly approves the clause on the right to life from the moment of conception, the law making abortion legal in case of rape or threats to the health or life of the pregnant woman would have to be codified.

“The lack of codification of the law creates a legal vacuum, giving rise to interpretations that vary from judge to judge. Under these circumstances, a woman who is raped is doubly victimised, because besides the sexual abuse she has suffered, she has to face distressing administrative and legal procedures, as occurred in Cochabamba,” he added.

Women’s rights activists argue, however, that a clearly codified law would not be a solution in and of itself.

“Bolivian women have little access to legal protection, not only because of the difficulties in the administration of justice but also, fundamentally, due to a cultural and social reality in which sexual violence is seen as normal,” said Uriona.

In Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, the maternal mortality rate is 420 per 100,000 live births, and complications arising from clandestine abortions are the third cause of maternal death.

According to CDD and Red-Ada, an estimated 115 clandestine abortions a day are performed in this country of nine million people.

The abortion debate has also flared up in several other Latin American countries. In April, the Mexico City legislature legalised abortion in that city; in late May, 250 NGOs in Argentina presented a proposed draft law that would legalise abortion; and authorities in Brazil are considering putting the question to a referendum, following the example of Portugal, where voters decided in February that parliament could legalise abortion.

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