“You Don’t Trust Anyone Here”: When Abortion Bans Become Reality
We know what happens when abortion is banned. A Honduran women's rights lawyer explains.
What I’m Writing
The Guardian - Alabama’s abortion ban shows the chilling effect of Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment. For years, the anti-abortion movement chipped away at abortion rights slowly and incrementally. Now, they’re going whole hog and banning the procedure outright. Why? Because they believe the Supreme Court will finally overturn Roe. I think they’re probably right. I also think they’re massive hypocrites: The same states that are banning abortion are the ones that boast the nation’s highest infant mortality rates. It seems that the concern for life ends as soon as the baby is born. Couple that with “pro-life” attacks on the most effective ways to prevent pregnancy (sex education and contraception) and it’s almost like it was never about “life” in the first place, but about controlling women and blocking the various tools — contraception, education and, yes, abortion — that let us take the reins of our own lives and forge our own paths.
Vanity Fair - Alabama’s Abortion Bill is Immoral, Inhumane, and Wildly Inconsistent. In the course of my work as a journalist, I cover abortion and sexual violence often. I have talked to more rape survivors than I can count, many of whom have become pregnant. It is stomach-turning to read about bills like Alabama’s, not just for what they could mean for American women, but for what I’ve seen similar laws do around the world. In my head, I run through a slideshow of faces. The woman in Congo who was raped and impregnated, talking to me as she cradled her baby in her arms—she had considered killing him, she told me, until she got a little bit of psychological care, but she still had no money, a broken body, and saw no future for herself or him. The now-mother of five in Colombia who was raped in her country’s civil war when she was just a girl, who didn’t even know what sex was, who certainly didn’t know how to get an abortion when she became pregnant, and so starved herself until she miscarried. The 12-year-old in Honduras, raped by a family member and forced by her country’s abortion laws (which read a lot like Alabama’s) to continue the pregnancy; when doctors told her she was pregnant and explained what that meant, she asked if she could have a doll instead. For legislators in Alabama and “pro-life” activists, this is all theoretical, all about their supposed morals and their commitment to life—none of which, funnily enough, seems to extend to pregnant women, or to children after they are born. But for the women and girls who live the reality of anti-abortion laws, it is indeed a matter of life and death, of morality versus cruelty, of protecting the vulnerable from those who would do them harm. The Alabama bill, and its total disregard of rape victims, is just one more link on a world-spanning chain of misogyny that has nothing to do with preserving life, and everything to do with keeping women bound.
What I’m Reading
The always-incredible Rebecca Traister on her own rage at the right-wing politicians who seek to outlaw abortion, and the many (mostly men) on the left who have dismissed women shouting about the chipping-away of abortion rights as hysterical Chicken Littles. Turns out the sky was falling after all.
Read this dedication by Gloria Steinem for her book My Life on the Road. Then take a moment to pause and reflect on all the women whose voices, work and lives we would be missing if they hadn’t had the ability to plan their families, through contraception and abortion. We would have lost out on so much. We are losing out on so much.
“I was forced to give birth to the child of this rape, always connected in some way to the man who took so much from me.”
This is an oldie but a goodie from Katha Pollitt, about the origins of the “pro-life” movement. The whole thing about life beginning at conception and religious groups always opposing abortion? Totally false.
As we’re looking at the potential demise of Roe v. Wade, it’s also worth pausing to look at some of our other most crucial Supreme Court cases and recognize that they may also eventually be on the chopping block — including Brown v. Board of Education, which at least on paper legally ended a long era of racial apartheid in the United States. Now, many Trump court appointees won’t say whether or not they support it.
The View From Here
I spent about half of last month reporting in Honduras, along with my dear friend and incredible photographer Nichole Sobecki and with support from IWMF. We were looking at violence against women and bans on abortion and emergency contraception — the impact of those bans on women, on violence, and on migration. A fuller piece will be coming out in the next few weeks, but the various abortion bans passed in American states this month are emphasizing, for me, the importance of these stories. We know what happens when abortion is banned or hard to get. In the course of reporting a longer-term project on access to abortion in conflict and crisis zones, I’ve seen this first hand. I’ve interviewed little girls who are pregnant from rape, clutching stuffed animals and forced to be mothers when they desperately need mothering themselves. I’ve interviewed women who have been prosecuted for suspected abortion, when really they had stillbirths or miscarriages. I’ve interviewed women who have self-induced their own abortions by starvation or with sticks or with pills or with herbs, and health care workers who have seen women in sepsis or with horrific injuries — the Rohingya woman in a Bangladeshi refugee camp whose flesh was burned off from the hot brick she placed on her stomach is one I can’t get out of my mind. This isn’t some Handmaid’s Tale dystopian reality. This is the reality women live (or die from) all over the world.
That I’m now watching my own country creep toward the kind of misogynist authoritarianism is terrifying. This is not theoretical. Laws outlawing abortion (and, as Honduras does, emergency contraception as well) have serious flesh-and-blood consequences for women and girls.
No one knows that better than Vanessa Siliezar, a 41-year-old women’s rights lawyer and teacher who works at UDIMUF, a Honduran organization she founded 13 years ago that works to protect the rights of women and girls. I met with Vanessa in her office in La Ceiba, a sunny city on Honduras’s northern coast and the beachy gateway to the popular island of Roatán. But from where Vanessa sits, it’s a lot darker. We talked about the impact of U.S. foreign policy on the ability of women in Honduras to plan their pregnancies and their lives, and what the ban on abortions means for women and girls. The below interview has been edited and condensed. I hope it’s a lesson on what women are already living through — and for American readers, what’s at stake.
“You Don’t Trust Anyone Here”: When Abortion Bans Become Reality
An interview with women’s rights lawyer Vanessa Siliezar in Honduras
Vanessa Siliezar, photographed in her office by Nichole Sobecki.
JILL: What kind of services are you providing for the women and girls you work with?
VANESSA: We give professional training on gender and human rights to both female and male leaders in communities and municipalities of Atlántida [a department in Honduras]. We provide training on sexual and reproductive health, as well as abortion, adolescent pregnancies, and gender-based violence. We also give trainings on masculinities, but to older men who have the power to make decisions. But the most experience we have is giving assistance, both legal and psychological, to women who have gone through domestic violence and sexual abuse — cisgender women and transgender women.
JILL: Does emergency contraception [which is illegal in Honduras, even for rape victims] come up in your work?
VANESSA: Working with women who had been sexually abused, and just giving them counseling, we saw that without the emergency pill there was a great gap – they would become pregnant. The other great gap that we found was that the hospital was giving them physical assistance, but they weren’t doing anything with psychological support. Without that psychological assistance we would give them legal support here, but they would drop it because they didn’t have psychological support. All of these women were going through this entire process of getting assistance, getting support, being accompanied [to the police], but at the end of the process they were still pregnant from the person who raped them. So it was nonsense.
These women that are part of the team are fully committed to the women they give assistance to. This [office] is where we met with different women and created support groups. Every time the topics of sexual and reproductive health came up. Many of them were abused by their own husbands. It came up all the time: How to avoid getting pregnant, how to have an abortion. But in this country, you can’t talk about abortion directly or how to get an abortion – you could end up in jail. You don’t trust anyone here.
JILL: Among the women you serve, do you see some of them pursuing self-induced abortions?
VANESSA: I’m sure some of them did it. But we are not going to talk openly about it. The pressure of the church, the pressure of the faith in their bodies – even in the 21st century, it’s something so easy women can do, but they are alone. They can’t even talk to their best friend about it, because the best friend, instead of helping her, could go out and report her. It’s an open secret, but the people who know about it are few. I’m a pro-choice Catholic, and when people see me in the Catholic Church, they point at me and say I’m a sinner. They say I shouldn’t be there. Even my mom gets told in the church, how is it possible that your daughter is for abortion? That’s murder. In this topic, everyone suffers.
If you look at the figures, girls from 10 to 14 are giving birth. This is rape in our penal code. But nothing happens.
JILL: What is the impact of these restrictions on the lives of rape survivors? What are the physical impacts, what are the psychological impacts, and what have you personally observed is the burden that this puts on women and girls?
VANESSA: Looking a girl in the face and seeing how she has lost hope for life – it’s horrible. In this machista culture, it’s not only the father that is raping, it’s also the brother or the grandfather. When she finally gets pregnant at 10 or 11, because it’s the first time she gets her period, she has lost all faith in the future. When she goes to ask for help or to the hospital, the law says she has to go with her mom. And that mom is the one who has been quiet about what this girl has gone through her entire life. In this culture, machista culture, they blame the mother for what the girl went through – they don’t blame the man who did it. Only the feminists are the ones who truly understand that the ones who have been the victims here are the girl and the mom. The mom maybe through a different chain, but in the end, they are the victims.
It’s not necessary for women here to come to us and tell us they want to get an abortion. We know they want to get an abortion. And they will. The only difference is that they are going to die. But the wealthy women who can decide over bodies are not – they can go to Miami and get an abortion there. This is the reality. This is a problem we have: Not one single woman is going to say that she’s going to get an abortion.
Even me, I am so courageous and so experienced, but I cannot tell a student of mine how to take Cytotec [an ulcer drug that is commonly used to induce abortion]. I cannot tell her. I would lose my job and I would go to jail. The countries that have a better network of information on this topic are ones in which girls and women are more educated and the Church has less influence. And us, we are so few – women’s rights defenders, it’s like a snowflake. People outside know where we are, who we are, where we live, and what we are doing. So even though I wasn’t the one who said “use these pills,” people are still going to come for me.
[At this point in the conversation, Vanessa pulls up a news article on her laptop. On the front page is a photo of a sobbing woman in a hospital gown and handcuffs, flanked by a police officer, below a headline blaring, “Woman Arrested for the Crime of Abortion.” The woman is named in the article, and her face clearly visible in the photo.]
Take a look. This is how women suffer because of abortion crime in this country. They put you on the front page. Is this necessary? And it was her mom who turned her in. They have been sold like dogs to the justice system. The system calls them bitches. They compare them to dogs who just leave their puppies.
A man is not going to be on the front page. But only us crazy feminists see that.
We think that it’s because we were fighting for abortion in Honduras [a feminist campaign to legalize abortion in cases of rape, incest, and a threat of the pregnant woman’s life failed in 2017]. A bunch of males said this shouldn’t be happening, so they follow women, they punish them, they show them in newspapers and on TV. It was like a lesson to us: Don’t talk about [abortion] because we are going to do this. And they actually did. They are sending a message to us. They increased the sentence for abortion in Honduras in the new penal code, so you go to jail for longer. They say it’s all our fault.
We hope that you will motivate young women to not allow this to be taken away from the United States. If that gets taken away there, it will get much worse here. Women have to fight for everything. Every day. This is about you. You. Us, for christ’s sake, we have never [legalized abortion] before. You have done it. I’ve worked for 12 years with many sexual and reproductive rights organizations that talk with so much passion. I’ve learned a lot from those wonderful women from your country. Now they are working in Africa, everywhere —but not there in the United States. And I’m really concerned.
JILL: Do you see linkages between sexual violence, limits on reproductive rights, and women’s decisions to migrate to the US?
VANESSA: Everything is connected. Women have to allow themselves to be raped in order to get to the border. The ones that don’t have children get injections so they don’t get pregnant – they know their ticket is rape. But that injection doesn’t save them from HPV or syphilis or AIDS. If they have girls going up with them, it’s the same consequence. That journey for women is not free. For trans women, it’s the same story – they are in the same conditions of vulnerability. If the U.S. government hadn’t blessed this dictator here, then we would be a little more at peace.
There isn’t a way for me to convince my female students to stay here. Yesterday we did a graduation for trans women from our human rights defenders program. Originally there were about 25 women. Ten of them have left the country.
JILL: In terms of why women leave in the first place, is one of the reasons women are motivated to leave because of sexual violence in their communities? And what’s the linkage between that and the lack of access to reproductive health care, in making women decide they want to go?
VANESSA: We need to check the machista culture. This country has one of the highest adolescent birth rates in the region. This means that men want to see their children – they cannot tolerate that a woman is not going to have a baby. If they are macho machos, like ultimate machos, they make their women have children. Here, we had a 24-year-old woman who had six children. She’s never been able to plan. When he found her pills, he put her head inside the toilet. And he would make her drink the pills with the toilet water.
What [women] do is, when they take the babies to the health center, they get the injection. They go because the baby needs the [vaccine] injection, but they get an injection too [of contraception]. But men are not dumb, and when the women don’t become pregnant, the men know they’re planning. And then they beat them up. So that’s the foundation of violence.
These men also don’t allow them to work, so they don’t have any funds. When [the men] leave, because they can leave whenever they want, they leave the women with three or four children without the possibility of supporting themselves. So the women look for another man, and have one or two children with this other man, and then she’s 30 with six children. And on the other hand if she finds a man who is a good man who provides for her and wants the best for her, he may not be able to get a job. There’s a lot of unemployment in this country. Or they end up like the guys out there as security guards, putting their lives at risk and earning $200 a month – risking their lives in the country with the most illegal weapons of any country in Latin America. Let’s remember that this is the coast line, so there’s a lot of drug trafficking here. The narcos have weapons up to their ears.
The insecurity that the government applauds and enforces is just passing the bill up north. USAID can spend whatever kind of money they want. They are going to become poor and still wait for people to stop fleeing.
For them, they need to run. I have worked with women who run, shoeless, from violence, and they come to our shelter. Think about it. Honduras is not a shelter anymore. They are going to run to you. Your place is safe, so people are going to go there. No one is going to stop them. USAID is going to be penniless and people are still going to run to the United States.
JILL: Do the restrictions on things like abortion or emergency contraception have any impact on that?
VANESSA: Yes. Of course. In this country, girls under 18 cannot ask for contraception. They cannot get an HIV test. They need permission from their parents. And at 18 they’re pregnant and delivering babies. It’s worse now, because this government is under the influence of the Evangelical church. The nurses that are called to provide assistance and talk about sexual and reproductive health are now giving them the gospel instead of giving them the education they need. Or worse, they don’t talk to them about God, but they judge them. The macho culture is that men don’t wear condoms at all. And women say it doesn’t feel the same way. So we are repeating a pattern based on ignorance and patriarchy. And that comes from the government. There isn’t a curriculum in schools that talks about sexual and reproductive health – there’s no sex ed. The manuals that were created were burnt by the cardinal and his pro-life group in 2010. And now the Evangelical church has more power, and that’s much worse. And now this government has allowed for the bible to be read in public schools. So remember, Genesis 3:16: You’re going to deliver your baby with pain.
If you’re looking for a way to help fight encroachments on reproductive freedom, you can always donate to a local or national abortion fund. You can speak out for reproductive rights — especially with those in your life who are against abortion or don’t think it’s a big deal to restrict it. And you can read, share and support reporting on women’s health all over the world, and recognize that we can and must learn from each other, about both consequences and effective ways to make change.