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Demanding our reproductive rights on the web: A Uruguayan experience

Cecilia Gordano
Cecilia Gordano on 15 October, 2007
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GenderIT.org
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A research study carried out in 2003 [1] estimated that around 33,000 abortions are performed annually in Uruguay, which would place the average prosecution rate at roughly 0.04%. In a country where abortion is illegal, the study added, figures like these “imply the existence of a de facto social consensus in which condemnation in norms and discourse coexist with a social practice of tolerance. (…) Society as a whole appears to articulate the contradiction between condemnation and tolerance through the denial of abortion, which means the invisibilisation of the act itself and, in turn, the reinforcement of the violence that this practice represents for those involved.”

Two weeks after the trial, a group referring to themselves simply as “citizens”, with no declared affiliation to any social organisations or political parties, launched a blog to show solidarity with the woman prosecuted for having an abortion, to proclaim themselves guilty of the same “crime” that she had committed, and to denounce “the injustice of the penalisation of women who have abortions”. The blog invited others to take part with the following message:

On 16 May 2007 a Uruguayan woman was prosecuted for the “crime of abortion”. We the undersigned have violated Law 9763 of 1938 by having or financing an abortion, accompanying a woman to have an abortion, or knowing the identity of women who have had an abortion and keeping silent. We are all that 20-year-old woman who was put on trial. Either we are all criminals, or this law is unjust.

“I had an abortion”

News of the initiative spread rapidly by word of mouth and emaili. In a matter of weeks, over 6,000 signatures had been collected, exceeding the expectations of those behind the initiative, including Lucy Garrido, a member of the feminist organisation Cotidiano Mujer. “For a population of three million people this is a record, this has never happened before,” she stressed. When asked about how it started, she explained, “At first we were thinking of queuing up at the police station and saying, ‘I had an abortion,’ but since nobody seemed to want to do that, we came up with ‘I signed my name.’”

“I had an abortion” [“Yo aborté”] is the name of another initiative promoted by the Argentine Women’s Information Network (RIMA) as part of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion in 2005. Through its website and an email list, the group invites women to publish their own personal stories of abortion, sharing a first person account of their fears, doubts, anger and reflections. The 70 testimonials gathered on the site highlight the qualitative aspect of the experience.

The Uruguayan initiative is similar to the campaign undertaken in Argentina in that it seeks to give greater visibility to the issue of abortion through virtual action on the interneti, although it differs by aiming for a quantitative impact (collecting thousands of signatures in a short time) and appealing to both men and women. Garrido emphasised that “people are signing their names here to say that they are guilty, that they committed a crime, and that has never happened in Uruguay, with or without a blog, no one has ever signed up to say they are criminals.” In fact, lawyer Carlos María Ferreira has lodged a criminal complaint, calling for an investigation into whether the blog constitutes a “defence of a crime”, which is itself punishable by a prison sentence of three to 24 months.

Blog as a 'rapid response' tool

The use of the blog as a means of collecting signatures was based on the need for “a rapid response to something that was happening right there and then: the girl’s prosecution.” Nevertheless, Garrido acknowledged the technical limitations – such as the difficulties in handling a large volume of additions to the list of signatures – and also, above all, the political limitations, especially with regard to the participation of wide sectors of the population without internet accessi. “We knew the problem with a blog was that we were going to reach a certain kind of public but not others, like low-income groups.”

The blog was meant to serve not only as a space for publishing the signatures collected, but also as a genuine blog offering access to legal texts, key testimonials from participants in the campaign – including a letter from the mother of the young woman who was prosecuted – and coverage of the online initiative in the press and other local, regional and international media. In addition to news articles about the campaign itself, one daily newspaper published the entire list of signatures after it had reached the 5,000 mark, while a weekly publication did the same once the total reached 6,000.

Making the issue of abortion a topic of daily conversation

Coverage of the signature collecting process in the traditional media had a three-pronged impact: first, it partially compensated for the effects of the “digital divide”, making the information more widely available to the population; second, it sensitised the public and made the issue of abortion both a news item and a topic of daily conversation; and third, it paved the way for challenging political actors on the current legislation from a human rightsi perspective. In fact, the list of signatures includes those of some highly influential figures from all three branches of statei power, including members of parliament and governmenti ministers.

After 6,000 signatures had been collected, a meeting was requested with Rodolfo Nin Novoa, the vice-president of Uruguay and president of the General Assembly (parliament). He was presented with a printed list of the signatures in his offices, with the media present as witnesses. At the end of the meeting, he publicly pledged that he would work to ensure that the sexual and reproductive rights bill – which had been languishing for months in the Senate Health Committee – would be discussed in parliament. The significance of the political impact generated by the blog is further heightened by the fact that Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez has repeatedly declared that he would veto the bill – a tacit means of disciplining the ruling coalition members who hold the majority in parliament. The bill is currently still before the Senate Health Committee, which is debating and voting on its contents. Chapter II on the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, which had been voted against, is being reconsidered, although the current balance of power among the members of the Health Committee does not leave much room for optimism.

This article is translated from the original version written in Spanish genderIT.orgi


Notes: [1] www.espectador.com/principal/brujula/bru0311041.htm