Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As Activists Rebuild Puerto Rico, Lawmakers Are Trying To Restrict Abortion

'We are so dehumanized that our government feels like they can do whatever because nobody is fact-checking'

By Christianna Silva

Abortion rights are under siege in Puerto Rico.

On March 7, Puerto Rican lawmakers voted to pass PS950, a bill that would require women under 18 years old to obtain their parent's consent to get an abortion, among other restrictions that activists argue would render the procedure virtually impossible for many people to receive. Governor Ricardo Rosselló immediately vetoed it, saying the bill imposes “onerous restrictions” on women. But that isn’t the end of PS950: Lawmakers in the House voted to override the governor’s veto, and now, it’s sitting in the Senate waiting for another vote, which could happen any day now.

It is currently legal for people in Puerto Rico to receive abortions at any point of their pregnancy without parental consent and has been since 1973 when the territory was required to adhere to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in the U.S. Before then, it was slightly more accessible and affordable to get the procedure in Puerto Rico than it was in U.S. states, Alexandra-Marie Figueroa Miranda, the campaign and activism coordinator with Amnesty International Puerto Rico, told MTV News. As she put it, the island “used to be an abortion haven for white women” in particular. “They would travel to Puerto Rico to get their abortion … and then go back to the U.S.”

Before Roe v. Wade was passed in 1973 The Society for Humane Abortions recommended Puerto Rico as one of several places around the world where women with the financial means could travel in order to obtain an abortion, according to a 2012 study. “Numbers are difficult to come by, but abortions obtained overseas were undoubtedly a small fraction of the illegal abortions that women obtained by the hundreds of thousands every year,” the study notes.

Despite Puerto Rico’s history with reproductive rights, PS950 has been making its way through the Puerto Rican legislature in some form for about a year, Mayra I. Díaz Torres, the program director of Clínica IELLA/ProFamilias Puerto Rico, told MTV News. The original bill was retired in November 2018 largely because of pushback from activists. It had required people under the age of 21 to receive parental consent before the procedure, despite the fact that the age of consent on the island is 16 and that people over the age of 18 can drink and vote (the legal age of minors in Puerto Rico is 21).

The bill also proposed an enforced 48-hour waiting period, attempted to ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, and included a sentence of up to 15 years in prison should a provider perform abortions on patients that in any way broached these new restrictions. According to Planned Parenthood, nearly all abortions performed in the U.S. are performed before the 21-week mark, but activists view 20-week bans as part of a concerted effort to ban abortion altogether. As NARAL argues, “Sponsors of these bans are attempting to lure the court into reopening the issue of legal abortion entirely by moving away from the viability standard established in Roe [v Wade].”

That first bill was met with considerable pushback from a number of advocacy groups including Clínica IELLA/ ProFamilias Puerto Rico, a group that educates people on the island about their reproductive rights. Representatives from more than 30 organizations participated in a media tour, protested the bill, and went to the hearings every day.

“We have seen some victories,” Díaz Torres said of the activists’ work. “The first version of the bill was rejected because of our pressure.”

Lawmakers went back to work, though, and introduced a new version of the bill with significantly fewer restrictions on patients, like lowering the threshold for parental consent to 18, instead of 21. However, the bill still requires “informed consent” laws that require healthcare providers to offer patients information about alternatives to abortion in writing; providers must also be inspected annually by the Puerto Rico Health Department. Providers who fail to comply would face fines up to $10,000 — funds that would be allocated for health education campaigns focusing on abortion alternatives like adoption, which activists say still places an undue burden on pregnant people to see a pregnancy through. Activists also argue that PS950, even in its updated state, places an undue burden on people seeking abortions for any reason, including those seeking abortions as a result of rape.

It’s obvious what the bill is attempting to accomplish: According to Refinery29, Sen. Nayda Venegas Brown, a pro-statehood lawmaker and evangelical minister who wrote the bill, told the Senate chamber, “I wish this was a bill to ban abortion.”

Michel Collado, who works with the advocacy group Taller Salud, sees the push for PS950 as part of a broader attack by conservative lawmakers on people’s sexual and reproductive rights. “Over the last few years, we’ve been struggling with a government that has eliminated access to sex education and gender perspective in public schools; they also cut funding to the NGOs [non-government organizations] that work with those issues,” she told MTV News over email. That lack of funding is being compounded by the effects of Hurricane Maria; as NGOs attempt to rebuild the island, they are often prioritizing their resources in ways that naturally create a ripple effect for other issues.

According to Alexandra-Marie Figueroa Miranda, the campaign and activism coordinator with Amnesty International Puerto Rico, the timing isn’t accidental. She pointed to Naomi Klein’s economic theory of shock doctrine as a possible reason why the government is attempting to push this legislation through now. “Governments take huge shocks like environmental disasters and natural disasters to implement really aggressive neoliberal policy,” she explained.

There isn’t much information on abortion rates in Puerto Rico, but as Refinery29 pointed out, the most recent study available seems to be from 1999; in it, researchers found that only 23 out of every 1,000 pregnancies resulted in abortion, among the lowest rates in the world.

Nevertheless, Figueroa Miranda notes, Puerto Rico is largely “conservative Catholic, due to our colonial relationship with Spain. So a lot of fundamentalists are trying to use their population to try to push very religious rhetoric into national politics.”

“If you get pregnant, you're going to have to keep it,” she adds, explaining that, because the island is so religious, abortion just isn’t part of their culture, and that adoption is largely frowned upon.

Yet one one of the most damning aspects of the bill is how little attention is being given to it by the rest of the U.S. “The issue is that we don't get to tell these stories outside of the island,” Figueroa Miranda says. “We are so dehumanized that our government feels like they can do whatever because nobody is fact-checking. Nobody is putting a stop hold on the policies and measures. And the biggest thing that we need since Maria, is we've needed our voices to be given a platform.”