When the Revolution Claims Your Uterus

Abortion laws in the United States seem to be set for an abrupt shift following this week’s elections. In this piece, Mateo Jarquin examines the extremely strict and punitive laws that govern several central American countries, where, surprisingly, abortion bans owe much of their origins to revolutionary leftist political parties.

Last month, the President of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly called for lawmakers to revisit the country’s penal code, which prohibits abortion under all circumstances and sentences women to harsh prison sentences for undergoing the procedure. Changing the law, which critics claim would require a constitutional reform, seems unlikely. Meanwhile, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega — who supports his country’s current criminalization of abortion — was re-elected this week to a fourth term in office.

The kicker? Both countries are ruled by nominally leftist governments. Both El Salvador’s FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) and Nicaragua’s FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) originated as Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movements which, to a greater extent than their Cuban predecessors, featured women in important leadership roles and espoused progressive agendas for gender equality. When they morphed into traditional political parties during the democratic transitions of the 1990s, they did so with the support of their countries’ respective feminist movements.

What explains this paradox? In short, faced with socially conservative societies, both parties found it all too easy — and expedient — to sacrifice women’s rights on the electoral road to power.

In 1998, El Salvador’s right-wing ARENA party used its legislative majority to pass a constitutional reform which defined life as beginning at conception and dramatically increased prison sentences for women who received abortions and doctors who performed the procedure. Despite complaints from women’s groups in his coalition, FMLN leader Facundo Guardado allowed the party’s representatives in the Assembly to vote freely on the measure. Only a handful voted against. When the leftist party finally captured the presidency in 2008, some activists expected to see some progress on the issue. Instead, President Mauricio Funes publicly chastised the director of the Salvadoran Women’s Institute — a government agency — for participating in an international conference in which she declared her government’s intention to revisit the country’s draconian abortion law. Current President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, during his earlier role as leader of the FMLN bloc in the Assembly, promised to not decriminalize abortion in a bid to appease the country’s powerful pro-life lobby.

In Nicaragua, successive right-wing governments in the 1990s and early 2000s sought to modify the country’s constitution, which since 1893 had granted women the right to an abortion if the pregnancy put their life at risk. The FSLN had expanded women’s rights during their revolutionary government of the 1980s and fought to defend them as an opposition party in the early years of the democratic transition. Ahead of presidential elections in 2006, however, the FSLN cynically joined the country’s right-wing parties and Christian institutions in calling for a blanket ban on abortion. In that contest, which saw a suddenly Church-friendly Daniel Ortega elected, only the fourth-place Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) — largely synonymous today with the country’s feminist organizations — defended limited abortion rights.

In abandoning their previously progressive women’s agendas, leftist party elites responded to electoral imperatives and political alliances with conservative groups. But it is poor women that are paying the price. As Harvard sociology professor Jocelyn Viterna explained earlier this year, “Money buys reproductive choice in El Salvador. For women without financial means, decisions about their reproduction will likely remain in the hands of the state.” Even then, the WHO reports that 11% of women who manage to get clandestine abortions in El Salvador die in the process. In Nicaragua, even according to government’s own figures, maternal mortality shot up 100% in the year after the ban went into effect. Angela Heimburger of Human Rights Watch, in reporting that statistic, bristled at the hypocrisy of Daniel Ortega supporting a deadly abortion ban after employing the campaign slogan, “Arise ye, poor of the world!” In the rest of the world, unqualified bans on abortion are extremely rare.

The decision to bail on women’s causes is emblematic of the perversion of two revolutionary movements which captured the global Left’s imagination in the 1970s and 80s. Indeed, astute Latin America-watchers in the U.S. often note that the left-right paradigm is no longer very useful for understanding politics in the region. It’s hard to think of a more blatant example than that of women’s reproductive rights in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Mateo Jarquin