Abortions are illegal in Ecuador—punishable by prison sentence and highly stigmatized. But this hasn’t stopped women from seeking them out. Instead, they go through the procedure clandestinely, under dubious circumstances and often completely alone. One group is trying to change that.
Las Comadres—which loosely translates as The Godmothers, or “a very close friend”—is a feminist group fighting back against the nation’s restrictive abortion laws. Members accompany women through their abortion procedures and provide them with medical and legal information. Last weekend, they ran their first national workshop walking women through the process.
The two-day abortion accompaniment workshop focused on these legal, medical and psychological issues women may face, and how to be prepared for them. According to the women in Las Comadres, the most important part of the process is to be able to inform women of the possible medical side effects, and of their legal rights with confidence, since it’s fear of the unknown that is the worst side effect for women in these circumstances.
Over 45 women from across the country traveled to the capital, Quito, for the two-day abortion accompaniment workshop. They voiced questions and concerns from cases that they’ve already seen happening around them: What happens when a young woman’s own mother reports her for having an abortion? What happens if a woman asks a doctor about her options, and he simply tells her “you will die if you abort?” What happens if a pharmacist asks for your doctor’s phone number so they can call and ask why they are prescribing these particular medications?
Regardless of race, social class or education level, “woman will abort,” said Daniela Alvarado, a long time member of Las Comadres. “But the women who die, who have obstetric complications, who are confronted with insecure procedures, it’s because they’re more alone, in some way more excluded, or poor.”
According to Ana Vera, a lawyer with Las Comadres, 249 women have been charged with illegal abortion since 2013, while the vast majority of these cases were reported to police by doctors after women went into the hospital with complications.
Over 22,986 abortions were documented in Ecuador in 2014 alone—a number that doesn’t include abortion procedures in which a woman never makes it to hospital. In some cases these were legal medical procedures, since abortions are allowed if the pregnant woman’s life is at risk or if the pregnancy is the result of the rape of a woman with disabilities. But 68.6 percent of these cases were “non-specified abortions,” including at-home procedures that result in hospitalization due to complications.
In Ecuador, insecure abortions represent 15.6 percent of all deaths in the country and are the fifth largest cause of death in general, according to a recent report by the Ministry of Health. In many circumstances, the victims are from poor or rural areas where access to healthcare and education is limited—which often means indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities.
Women’s rights organizations, including Las Comadres, have long existed in Quito, offering helpline services for those looking for secure ways to abort at home. They give information about two procedures, both of which are a combination of specific medications. This might seem like a legal grey zone, but the women say they aren’t worried for their own safety because simply giving information is completely within their rights. This is true even for accompanying women during the process.
According to the World Health Organization, cultural beliefs against abortion are a major barrier to accessing safe resources, but they don’t stop abortions from happening. Some of the workshop participants echoed these concerns, saying it was their predominantly religious and “pro-family” culture that were their biggest limitations.
“It’s time that we talk about these topics without fear,” said Alvarado, explaining that the goal of spreading these services throughout the country is to open the public dialogue about abortions and “de-penalize it socially.”
Ecuador is not the only place that offers these abortion accompaniment services. Las Comadres works directly with groups in Argentina and Chile, while similar ones are said to exist in Asia, according to Vera. Last weekend was only a taster for Ecuadorians. Las Comadres plan on holding more consecutive workshops, where they can address these heavy topics more in depth, and solidify a national and regional support network.
“It’s time to break the silence,” they said.