I’m a murderer because I chose to have an abortion to retain ownership of my personhood, according to the president of Puerto Rico’s Senate and Popular Democratic Party (PPD), Juan Luis Dalmau Santiago.
I am a murderer because, as a woman, I chose my freedom.
“In the same way that I rebuke those that believe in abortion, I think that, after five and a half weeks of the child being formed, with the viability of being alive, to do the contrary is killing the child,” Dalmau Santiago said in a recent interview. “To do the contrary is murder, inside or outside the womb. This is my position. It is murder.”
A bill backed by Dalmau Santiago and Sen. Joanne Rodríguez Veve, who is of the ultra-religious Partido Dignidad and is one of the bill’s authors, attempts to prohibit abortions beginning at 22 weeks, or when a physician decides that a fetus is viable—the only exception being if the woman’s life is in danger. Never mind that abortion in Puerto Rico is a constitutional right with no term limits and is protected by the right to intimacy.
Welcome to the Boricua Republic of Gilead, where women are a national resource.
The Puerto Rico Senate committee headed by Rodríguez Veve, who was appointed by Dalmau Santiago, approved the bill in a 9-3 vote without public hearings because Rodríguez Veve claimed they weren’t necessary. The Senate was set to vote on it but the fierce backlash the bill received from diverse political, social, medical, and feminist sectors forced it back to the committee.
“Those expressions (of Dalmau Santiago) disgusted me. I don’t see another way to describe it,” Maria Cristina Muñoz, a media specialist of Paz Para La Mujer, a non-profit women’s organization, told me.
“They disgusted me, and I am not a woman who has had an abortion. I can’t even imagine the effect that word ‘murderer’ had on women that have had to have an abortion,” she said.
It was not pleasant, let me tell you.
The move by conservative Puerto Rican politicians came as a leaked draft of an impending ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court left no doubt that the Court’s conservative majority is set to end the right to abortion protected by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. At least 44 states have limited abortions, many at 20 to 24 weeks or at fetal viability.
The leaked draft brought a hatchet down on U.S. politics and law, cleaving them in two just six months before the midterm elections. The actual decision is expected this summer.
Meanwhile, the nation is left to sift through what will remain and what other issues of the right to privacy will be severed if Roe v. Wade is scrapped. Even the legitimacy of the Supreme Court has been thrown into question.
“Will this institution (the U.S. Supreme Court) survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said soon after the leak.
In Puerto Rico, the move to restrict abortion came suddenly —not after years of plotting by one party to get conservative judges on the court— and is more than political thuggery dressed up as religion. It is a question of life or death at the ballot box.
As I wrote last week, the 2020 elections in Puerto Rico saw the end of the powerful bipartidismo of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) and the PPD.
Both parties are in a fight for their existence, and both, especially the PPD, are using the issue of abortion to garner voters from the religious right. Up to now, the governing pro-statehood PNP has tiptoed around the issue.
A 2017 survey by Pew Research found that about three-quarters of people in Puerto Rico oppose abortion in all or most cases, a higher number than among Boricuas living stateside.
Couple this with the fact that Puerto Ricans are overwhelmingly Catholic and that in recent years Pentecostal fundamentalism has strengthened its cult-like hold on the islands, particularly among women, and you get the picture.
“In Puerto Rico, the fundamentalist religious sectors and some political parties are of a patriarchal bent,” Frances Hernández Rodríguez, program director and administrative specialist for Paz Para La Mujer, said during a recent discussion on abortion. “That is to say, they take advantage of whatever opportunity that is open to them to thwart the advance of the rights of women over their bodies and lives. They are sectors that seek to establish a Puerto Rican society where women and, in this case, those that are gestating, are at the mercy of the State.”
But women account for over half of the islands’ population and vote in record numbers—more than the men.
Women win elections.
“Before the last elections, these conservative votes were divided between the two main parties (PPD and PNP). Today, the scenario is different because a new party created by religious leaders (Partido Dignidad) entered the panorama,” Muñoz explained.
“From my point of view, there is a sort of desperation to recuperate the votes of conservative people and that the latter do not see themselves completely identified with the new party,” she added.
If Roe v. Wade is overturned, the fear is that the religious right in Puerto Rico and the two main parties will be emboldened to further tighten the noose around women’s rights.
The hope is that young women, part of the increasingly powerful Boricua female voting bloc, will go to the polls in large numbers.
If they don’t, girls born in Puerto Rico today might have fewer rights than those born 50 years ago.
We can’t allow that to happen. We will never go back.
Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is the former News Director for Univision Puerto Rico and a writer and journalist living in New York City. She has a blog in El Nuevo Día called Dos Caminos y Una Subversiva. Comments can be sent to her email. Twitter: @DurgaOne