The State Still Owns Your Body
First it was because of desire (as whores, hysterical women, and nymphomaniacs), then it was because of dissidence (as divorcees, lesbians, and sterile women). Now it is because of suffering; women are maligned for their own suffering. In Central America, women are bleeding out: they can’t make decisions about their bodies, their lifestyles choices (sexual or maternal), and much less, their enjoyment thereof. We have been taught who can possess us: a man, a husband, the law, the institutions, God or the Devil. But never ourselves.
For many years, throughout centuries, they have controlled us, the figure of womanhood was the enemy, as witch and beast. And while [those of us with privilege] have had much to gain through this construction of otherness, we have had much more to lose. Now, it is the 21st century, and eight women are raped every day in El Salvador, more than 22 raped in Guatemala, the struggle for our bodies, for our security and autonomy must be bigger than ever.
The principle of sovereignty of nations, which to this day composes the political vocabulary of Central America, must first be subject to the primary sovereignty of body and choice. With this I wish to say that the State must not—and cannot—intervene nor create normatives upon the bodies and life choices of women. What kind of state have we built these past two centuries that allows it to not only stick itself into the noses of its citizenry, but also into the uteruses of women? By introducing itself into that uterus, rather bursting into it, the State has forced women to lose all possible autonomy, all the struggles they have achieved.
The present-day nations of Central America act under supposedly democratic constitutions, but with the expertise of totalitarian states. They want to control everything: they no longer need to control the desire of women, it is clear that they have almost annulled it; now they want their suffering, their dignity. To control the mind and body, but not just any body, but the bodies of women. The bodies of poor women.
On October the 11th, the president of the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador, Lorena Peña—someone equally both loved and hated—introduced a piece of legislation that would reform the penal code that defines the termination of a pregnancy under any circumstance as homicide. Under any circumstance. As a result of the existing law, women have ended up imprisoned. The legislation reform argues for the decriminalization of abortion for the following four causal reasons:
1. If the life of the pregnant woman is at risk, under the supervision of a medical professional;
2. If the pregnancy is the product of rape or sex trafficking;
3. If there is a malformation that would make the fetus’s life impossible outside of the uterus;
4. If in the case of rape or statutory rape of a minor, said minor consents to the termination with the authorization of her parents or legal guardian.
In Nicaragua, a country constructed after a revolution that built up the hope of a continent and transformed its women as protagonists of its history, the alliances created by Daniel Ortega—the FSLN incarnate—brought about a tremendous regression of human rights: in 2006, in alliance with the Church, abortion was criminalized in Nicaragua. It is no longer legal to have an abortion due to medical issues.
In Guatemala, cases of maternal mortality are also linked to abortion. As Carmen Quintela informs us, the principal cause of maternal mortality is hemorrhage, and here is where we have to pay attention and be alarmed given that many times this term serves as a euphemism for an abortion, whether induced or spontaneous.
Women take desperate measures. The healthcare system, doctors, nurses, know what is happening but rarely say anything. Women who endure imposed pregnancies and attempt to abort take unimaginable measures: introducing foreign objects to rip open the uterus, introducing lye into themselves to burn their vaginas. Many bleed out and die. Other survive but suffer unimaginably. For those who do survive and appear in media, they endure the derision of being called whores and murderers.
The principle method of control by the state over human beings has been through its control of human desire and drive. As a historian, I understand that in the 19th century, the state wanted to create normatives around lifestyle, feelings, the body, and the imagination. I also understand that a woman was the “caretaker of the race,” the incubator of the new citizenry, and in some cases, like in Mexico, the new Cosmic Race. I understand it as part of a historical process, but I cannot ignore the fact that almost 200 years have passed and the life choices of women are still a political matter [for the state].
At the end of the 19th century, legislation on divorce in Central America, and especially, El Salvador, sought to control the family, given that the family was—and still is according to constitutions—the base of society. Even though today we believe that divorce is an emancipatory act, in the 19th century it functioned as a control mechanism: it contained or controlled violence, murder, alcoholism, prostitution, and venereal diseases. It was woman who was called upon to care for the virtue of the family and social order. She was, I insist, the caretaker for the future of the republics, the gestator, the uterus of the nation.[i]
The control of the uterus becomes an uncontrollable matter when the state tries to mediate between critical levels of violence, the growing power of religious institutions, and prejudices and hate. In the public debate, the body of womanhood is naked, unprotected, sullied, and spread out. Everyone can speak for women, except women themselves: whether it is male deputies of the republic, the judges that hand out sentences, lawyers, pro-life organizations, and even feminist organizations who have to be careful not to objectify the bodies of the women in question, what is considered a political cause, in reality, is really a human cause.
In the week following the proposal to decriminalize the termination of a pregnancy in El Salvador, the response from pro-life groups against the proposal varied from the most laughable to the most violent. Among these responses, some pro-life women complained that for those of us who support the reforms to the penal code, our own mothers would not have aborted us.
This past week, I have witnessed some of the most classist arguments for not permitting dignity and health for women at risk. Especially when the statistics indicate that we are in a state of emergency:
According to the Institute of Legal Medicine of El Salvador (IML), in 2015 there were 2,048 complaints of sexual assault against women, which breaks down to an average of 6 women who were victims of sexual violence every day, one every four hours.
In 2015, 75% of sexual assaults against women were caused by a member of the family or a person known to the victim, as reported by the IML.
In 2015, the IML registered 1,634 girls or adolescents 19 and younger who were victims of sexual violence (79.8% of all female victims).
According to the Ministry of Health of El Salvador (MINSAL), in 2015, 30% of pregnancies in the country were from girls or adolescents. An average of 69 girls or adolescents became pregnant every day.
In 2012, 1 in every 5 girls between the ages of 10 and 12 who gave birth experienced their first sexual relationship with a family member.
From this group of young mothers, 29% was already partnered before becoming pregnant and 17% had a partner that was 10 year or older than herself, which itself constitutes as statutory rape.
According to the MINSAL system which monitors maternal deaths, in 2011, suicide represented the third leading cause of maternal deaths following hypertensive disorders and postpartum hemorrhaging.
According to the Panamerican Health Organization (OPS), in 2013, 50% of suicides among adolescent Salvadoran women between the ages of 15 and 19 were the result of imposed pregnancies.
We are killing the future. And we are killing it because we are condemning these women who have experienced violence, and the progeny of that violence, to live in a system that cannot guarantee them mental health services to confront the origins of their own traumas, because we force them to live in a state that surveils, criminalizes, and corners them—because to say they are marginalized almost sounds poetic.
III. An Issue of Class
The discussion over the termination of a pregnancy in cases of sexual assault or health risks places us in a discussion about socioeconomic class. Yes, class. I hate having to continue thinking of any country or region in terms of class—and not class struggle—but the issue very much intersects with economic privilege and mythical and prejudicial social configurations. The discussion of abortion in El Salvador has been interpreted very much through a partisan lens and the context of financial crisis, both of which are unavoidable. But I would like to proceed towards what is always discussed (and not for the first time), and that is the euphemistic interpretation of “abortion” for the poor, and “curettage” (as it is called in hospitals where this procedure is performed) for those who can afford to pay.
The criminalization of poverty among women who end their pregnancies either voluntarily or involuntarily, diminishes their options. Each time it becomes clear that we cannot choose for ourselves. The criminalization of poverty, the violent narrative around class, and a media that privileges the women who denounce poor women who have abortions as murderers, creates a dark and boggy field to traverse.
Since the 1998 reform to the penal code that typified the termination of a pregnancy as murder, the right-wing has from the trenches of religion and morality, wrapped itself with a flag to denounce abortion. In this sense, the discourse characterizes pregnant women with imposed pregnancies as immoral and at fault for their own pregnancies. It also makes these women responsible for an act they did not provoke and for which it is impossible to solely place responsibility on women. If we lived in a country with the right to choose and an abundance of reproductive health services, that faulty discourse could still be spoken of, but never justified. But is absurd and disrespectful to blame a woman for her own rape, to believe that women are allowed to choose freely and to make poor choices with her own reproductive life in a country with so much violence and impunity when it comes to reproductive rights and sexual health. We know that it is men—partners and aggressors—and the institutions who truly have direction over the bodies and life choices of women. The Catholic discourse and the right-wing have also proposed castration for rapists—everyone knows that the Old Testament has a lot of stimulating violence.
That is why it is significant that the deputy for the ARENA party, Johnny Wright Sol, speaks about the normalcy of abortion in certain socioeconomic strata, and the criminalization of poverty in other strata. One day after the proposed reform had been presented, from the negative light of the right-wing parties, ARENA and PDC, Wright Sol declared:
“The fact that abortion is illegal doesn’t mean that it’s not a problem that doesn’t exist. There are those who have the possibility to abort outside of the country or simply do it discretely, and there are those who don’t have the resources and must rely on clandestine clinics where they may lose their lives… In our country, abortion is a reality, it always has been.”
This discourse marks with clarity the difference in class, privilege, and repercussions. It is important not to just know, but to place what we plainly know into discussion so we can construct narratives that reconcile the law and praxis.
If we think about what Wright Sol states as a starting point, we can overcome—for the good of everyone—the extremeness of good versus evil argumentations, which have added nothing to the discussion of access to abortion as matter of public health, a real crisis as the numbers from IML and MINSAL have demonstrated. And we can finally discard the terrible analogy that abortion is as much murder as the 17-25 Salvadorans that are murdered daily. Murder is a social construction, which although mediated by biology, has been constituted as a category by the institutions and the law. In that same manner, we have constructed ideas about being a baby, a conceptualization within what is social, and which in reality, has no relation with what happens inside a uterus. What is inside a uterus is an embryo, which if it develops accordingly, will become a fetus. That is what happens inside. Outside, something else happens, a conceptual operation: the conceptualization, creation, and construction of an idea of a baby. An idea, precisely. That is why we cannot accept the discourse around an embryo or a fetus as a baby because there is no social relation, or an interaction mediated by culture. It is important for me to point this out because if we can accept that we have constructed discourses that are derived from made-up social categories, then we can deconstruct the cyst-like concepts surrounding the termination of a pregnancy. For example, like the discourse from so-called pro-life movements. A notable columnist, leader of this movement, wrote a letter to me a while ago, in which she expressed a position that for me clearly represents a sector with a lot of power and which embodies the movement against abortion:
“It is incoherent to say that poverty should not be criminalized and that the poor criminal ‘is a victim.’ Understanding this, according to you, poverty is a license to commit murder. So then, you must remember that all the gang members, without exception, surge from poverty.”
The columnist’s observations are nothing new, and follow a tradition of classism and exclusion. The discourse that criminalizes poor women and their reproduction is not new in the political language of Latin America, on in Central America. If, as I have stated before, what is feminine has been embodied as inimical and bestial, even in the glorious liberal nations that broke away from the ancient regime, women continue to be constructed as the enemy: the man who would not die for his country was effeminized. For indigenous women, it has been far worse since they reproduced the “indian problem,” given that they are the life bringers and caretakers of a backwards and pernicious race, according to positivists. In El Salvador in 1915, the Libro Azul (Blue Book) reproduced an argument by David J. Guzmán: “the figure of the indian[ii] woman is not interesting, and when old, extraordinarily ugly (...) The indians are obstinate in their endeavor to not mix with the white element.”[iii] In Bolivia in 1919, Alcides Arguedas proposed that the “indian woman was in fact a beast: she engendered a backwards race that had less use than a beast of burden.”[iv] These reflections on race and gender are centennial, but nonetheless they persist in our democratic nations which continue to reproduce cystic modes of thinking, even if its representatives seek to reinterpret or rename: today the matter is about class and gender, about poverty and gender, about poverty and criminality, about gender and criminality.
In some of my texts, I have maintained that the so-called middle class has a shiftless relationship with the lower classes. To be a from the upper and middle class is to be a woman with a privileged condition. In reality, not all women and not all girls can dream with getting married, not in the sense that this should be the ultimate outcome in the life of a woman as many conservative discourses maintain, rather, because from their earliest years many women are subjected to abuse and sexual assault, human trafficking, and prostitution. The young woman who marries as a virgin, dressed all in white is a repetition of scene from a telenovela, which is frozen in the iciest and most selfish minds of individuals who cannot see with clarity the country in which they live. The alarming data from MINSAL reveals the prevalence of sexual abuse in infancy, carried out by figures with power: fathers, family members, teachers, religious leaders.
With what cynicism can someone from an air conditioned office say that girls and women who have experienced rape do not have a right to dignity? How do we give back the dignity and self-love to women and girls who are sought after and raped by gangs in a modern day actualization of the prima noctis law. Unwanted and imposed pregnancies are far more cruel when they are judged from a position of privilege, that sumptuous cushioned sofa with exquisite tapestries and intense textures. Imposed pregnancies are causing thousands of deaths. To whom do their lives matter?
In this sense, the discussion does not follow the easy road of a simple yes or no response to the question of “choosing life.” It’s about something more than a worn out catchphrase that can represent the real issue. It’s about the fact that in our countries to this day, at this precise moment, many women die during or shortly after giving birth, even if they had “chosen life.” That is because not all women can be pregnant in the most optimal conditions for life, because we live in poor countries that are violent and exclusionary. Countries where during recent wars, the bodies of women were also tortured and where rape constituted as weapon of repression. We come from national stories full of pain.
IV. What is private is political
I am in favor of the reforms to the Penal Code of El Salvador which decriminalizes four conditions under which to terminate a pregnancy. I am in favor of if because the reform does not impose an arbitrariness to the termination of pregnancy, because it is responding to a national health and security crisis. I am in favor of dignity for life, not just for me, but for all women. I think about Central America and about our girls. I want for them what has been made available to me, and more. I want them to be able to study, to have a choice, to be able to live, to experience joy in all its senses and that no one ever makes them feel fear for thinking, expressing, deciding, or living. That is why I write this text and I will write more.
If someone asks, as many already have, if I would choose to have an abortion if I got pregnant, I would be able to respond with clarity, even if the question itself is still perverse and violent. I would like motherhood as a life experience. However, to experience it or not, resides, and has always resided, in my right to choose.
It is a perverse and violent to ask about women’s personal choices because it maintains the power of state and a public opinion that through its class privilege has allowed discourses of hate to prevail, and which pushes us toward socioeconomic gaps that are fast becoming gorges. It is a perverse question to ask because it makes a private matter public, but it does not allow it to be a form of political expression, because the political permits expression and liberty. Because as women we are tied up, and if we dissent, we are judged. We are no longer the divorcees, lesbians, or sterile women—they can’t imagine how harsh the world is with sterility—no, now we are murderers.
Even the sole act of dissenting with respect to conceiving turns us into terrible beings in El Salvador, judged by all who believe that faith or economic status places their lives over ours. I have received insults this week which have called “spinster” and “murderess,” and coming from the place in society where I come from, I don’t know which insult is worse, so instead I laugh.
The importance of privilege is not to maintain its monopoly, but how to activate that privilege for the rest and break the monopoly. What can we do it then? We can make that privilege a more humane and solidary instrument. Only those who gloat about their monopoly of privilege can have a stone heart and deafened ears before the nightmarish experience of thousands of women in Central America. The violence that Central American women live with is not a narration of constructed fiction, but a narration of experience itself. As I have stated before, women, young women, girls, are murdered and abused in their intimate spaces. They do not know of any princes, they only know aggressors.
I don’t solely believe that these reforms that seek to decriminalize the termination of pregnancy are the happy ending to the whirlwind of violence, rather, I’m thinking of a national narrative that will allow us to be freer and happier. But I also believe that we need to begin to contend that our bodies as women are ours, that we have a right to joy and choice, that we are not secondary subjects in the narrative of the media, nor are we subject to the will of men, that we are the protagonists of our own story, and which can be the beginning of a road that leads toward becoming less unjust and perverse nations.
If within the political, what is private can be reconfigured as public, I believe that converting that intimate niche into a political niche can lead toward other reconfigurations. That gaze from the private sphere that projects transformation in the public is not just mine. As Oswaldo J. Hernández said, “In the nest, in the intimate, one can work toward challenging the structural machismo from the category of family (...) In the streets, it doesn’t change because there is no intimacy there.” It is up to us to make sense of this struggle for what is intimate, for what is ours.
If the project of the republic has demonstrated that in 200 years it is nothing more than a national entelechy that each day has less scaffolding of sustainability, why can’t we think about the construction of a dignified life from other concepts, from other narratives?
Este artículo es una traducción de El Estado posee tu cuerpo, aún, elaborada por Víctor Interiano. El original se publicó en Plaza Pública el 22 de octubre de 2016.
[i] For those interested in expanding on the topic, I can share my essay, “La reforma conyugal: matrimonio civil y divorcio. Una discusión sobre el progreso en El Salvador 1880-1894”
[ii] Although usage of the term “indian” has racist connotations to us today, in the historical sense of this text, it maintains the usage and concept of the authors cited.
[iii] GUZMÁN en Libro Azul, p. 47.
[iv] ARGUEDAS, Raza de bronce
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