Puerto Rico Senate Attempts to Limit Abortions at 22 Weeks

Apr 8, 2022
11:42 AM

AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — On Tuesday, March 29, a new anti-choice abortion bill was passed by a Senate commission in Puerto Rico that limits abortions to 22 weeks. Rushed to approval without public hearings, the bill has drawn outrage from the public, female politicians, and medical professionals.

Approved by the Commission on Life and Family Affairs, Senate Project 693 (PS 693) would enable the Law for the Protection of the Conceived in its Viability Gestational State, which limits rights currently held by Puerto Ricans to get abortions past the 22-week mark with few exceptions. It would also create the Registry of Termination of Pregnancy in Gestational Viability State, which would force the Health Department to compile information about the people who get abortions, their doctors, their nurses, and the hospitals that perform abortions.

Because the bill was rushed to approval, there was only one informative report submitted both for and against the bill. Both the Department of Health and the National Campaign for Free, Safe and Accessible Abortion were opposed to the bill.

“Abortion is not regulated in Puerto Rico,” Senate President Jose Luis Dalmau of the center-left Popular Democratic Party (PPD) told the press while championing the bill he co-authored.

Abortion in Puerto Rico falls under the purview of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the historic 1973 case, Roe v. Wade, which prohibited the banning of abortion before fetal viability. Abortion had been made effectively legal in Puerto Rico with the passage of reforms in 1937, and by the 1960s it was often cheaper and easier to get an abortion in the U.S. colony than on the mainland, with white women especially traveling to Puerto Rico to have the procedure done. Roe v. Wade made abortions officially legal in Puerto Rico.  Additionally, the 1980 case of People of Puerto Rico v. Pablo Duarte Mendoza further recognized abortion in Puerto Rico. 

“The bill as it is written lacks specificity and is vague,” Justice Secretary Domingo Emanuelli Hernández told the press. “We have made some suggestions, that unless they are corrected, that project, from our point of view, is unconstitutional.”

Critics of the bill have pointed out that the 22-week mark set out by the bill is arbitrary, as fetal viability is based on a variety of factors, not just gestational time. They also point to the fact that abortion restrictions hurt women’s health and increase the risk of maternal death.

“We in the medical field, when we are in that gray area, we have to take it on a case-by-case basis,” Dr. Yari Vale Moreno, the only obstetrician-gynecologist in Puerto Rico who performs abortions to the 24-week mark, told Latino Rebels. “It seems very rigid and crazy to us that they would make a law like this.”

Her sentiments were echoed by the College of Physicians-Surgeons of Puerto Rico, who sent a letter to Sen. Joanne Rodríguez Veve, co-author of PS 693 and member of the Christian-democratic party Proyecto Dignidad, and other members of the Commission on Life and Family Affairs, explicitly rejecting the bill. In the letter, doctors cite the fact that PS 693 seeks to define medical practices from the legislature, not the medical field, and the lack of financial impact study included in the bill, among many other reasons for their disavowal.   

 “Legislators do not sit down to think how much this costs,” Dr. Vale Moreno said.

According to the Department of Health, less than one percent of abortions in Puerto Rico are done after 21 weeks of pregnancy. Meanwhile, 92.7 percent of abortions are performed at 13 weeks, and 6.2 percent are performed between 14 and 22 weeks.

“The people who will suffer the most are youths, people racialized as Black, and poor people—because if you have money, you can afford an abortion,” said a spokesperson for the National Campaign for Free, Safe and Accessible Abortion.

Dr. Vale Moreno says that the majority of people who get abortions at the 22-week mark are typically those with the least access to abortions or the resources necessary to properly care for a child. She estimated that many of her patients who get an abortion between 22 and 24 weeks are sexually-abused teens, physical abuse victims, or people with substance abuse disorders.

“In the same way that I reprimand those who believe in abortion, I think that, after five and a half weeks of the creature being formed, with viability to be alive, to do the opposite is to kill it. Doing the contrary is assassination, inside or outside the womb,” Sen. Dalmau told the press. 

Dalmau’s remarks have echoed what many proponents of the bill have said in response to criticisms, characterizing every person who chooses to have an abortion as an “assassin.”

Many critics have thundered back against the charge, including former PPD Gov. Sila María Calderón.

Calderón, Puerto Rico’s first female governor, called for “greater inclusivity, delicacy and respect” in discussions surrounding PS 693 and condemned the “assassin” label. She also denounced the fact that the bill was brought up for voting “without holding public hearings, or weighing input from medical professionals, organizations that defend human rights and women’s rights.”

While much public discussion, especially from anti-choice advocates, has only centered on women’s rights, it must be stated that non-binary people and some trans men can also get pregnant, and PS 693 would also affect their abortion rights.

Opposition to PS 693 has worked as a unifying force for female politicians across the political spectrum. On Monday, April 4, female politicians from the PPD, the New Progressive Party (PNP), the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), and Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (MVC) gathered outside the Capitol to denounce the anti-choice bill.

 “It doesn’t matter that we have differences. We are united in one single voice to say that the Senate project, which attempts to restrain the rights of women to decide over their body, is bad for Puerto Rico,” former PNP senator Zoé Laboy told the press on Monday. 

“If we had more education based on rights, the conversation we’d be having would be a different one,” Lourdes Inoa Monegro, director of Programs for Women and Health at Taller Salud, told Latino Rebels. “It’s very dangerous that other people are making decisions over our bodies.” 

Taller Salud is a community-based feminist organization focused on providing better access to health and pushes for economic development through education and activism. They have vocally opposed multiple anti-choice and anti-abortion bills that have been proposed in the legislature.

Because of the rushed vote, few organizations managed to formally submit their opposition to the latest bill. The National Campaign for Free, Safe and Accessible Abortion was one of them, telling Latino Rebels that the only reason they managed to do so was that they already had a document prepared since the bill was first written in December. They only learned it was coming down to vote the day of because they called Sen. Rodriguez Veve’s office and only had an hour to adjust their documents. 

“For me, it is unmeritable to hold public hearings to discuss whether a developing baby that is already viable —that is, that is known to be able to survive outside its mother’s womb— should be killed or should not be killed. I don’t think that discussion is a discussion for public hearings,” Sen. Rodríguez Veve said on Twitter.

Even though the bill’s co-authors steadfastly insisted the bill did not need public hearings, they were eventually forced to yield due to immense pressure from different sectors in Puerto Rico, including the ACLU, the Department of Health, the College of Physicians-Surgeons, politicians across different parties and pro-abortion activists.

Public hearings for PS 693 will be held on April 26, 29, and 30.

Politicians in the United States also voiced their opposition to the bill. Leaders of the Democratic Women’s Caucus and the House Pro-Choice Caucus, along with Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) —the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the U.S. Congress— issued a statement strongly denouncing PS 693.

“In the dark of night with no public hearing, a Senate Commission in Puerto Rico’s legislature moved to advance a cruel and dangerous bill that would target abortion access on the island,” the statement read.

“In recent history, Puerto Rico has been at the forefront of the right to a safe abortion,” the group concluded. “We strongly urge Puerto Rico’s Senate to abandon this reckless legislation and instead stand on the side of reproductive justice for all.”

House Majority Leader Stony Hoyer (D-MD_ also stated his opposition to the bill, saying in a statement: “I was deeply disturbed to learn that a Senate Commission in the Puerto Rico legislature, controlled by the island’s Republican-affiliated party, advanced a bill through the would ban safe abortion after twenty-two weeks, without any public testimony or consideration.”

While Hoyer linked the bill to a “Republican-affiliated party,” no such party currently exists in mainstream Puerto Rican politics, with members of the two main parties —the PNP and PPD— affiliating with two main parties in the United States.

But PS 693 does find itself squarely among a host of Republican-led efforts to limit or erase abortion rights across the United States, with Rep. Velázquez and the others stating in their letter that “this legislation is part of a nationwide effort to turn back the clock on reproductive rights and limit access to abortion care.”

With six conservative Supreme Court justices signaling their intention to possibly overturn Roe v. Wade, 26 states are currently making moves to make abortion inaccessible or illegal for their citizens. Many of these states have either six-week or eight-week bans that would immediately go into effect were Roe overturned.

The Oklahoma legislature is the most recent to pass a near-total abortion ban bill on Tuesday, April 5.


Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is a freelance journalist, mostly focused on civil unrest, extremism, and political corruption. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL