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The Internationalist
December 2013

Free Abortion on Demand!

Ecuador: Populist President Correa
Attacks Women’s Right to Abortion

For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

Women’s rights activists form “red carpet” in front of Ecuador’s Legislative Assembly on September 27 demanding decriminalization of abortion.   (Photo: Alianza por la Solidaridad)

There is an onslaught against women’s right to abortion underway, extending from the U.S. to Central and South America. This is notably the case in Nicaragua, El Salvador and now Ecuador, all three countries under supposedly leftist governments: the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the PAÍS Alliance respectively. Like the international drive to privatize public education, this offensive against women cannot be viewed as an isolated case in each country. Even more grotesque is the fact that it is not right-wing governments who are spearheading this concerted attack against women, but rather governments that claim to be “progressive.”

Case in point, Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa, a bourgeois populist who came to office in 2007 and was just reelected for a third term: claiming to lead a “civic revolution” of nationalist policies and social reforms,1 Correa recently let loose a tirade to squelch any talk of reform on abortion. “Let them say what they want, but I will never legalize abortion,” he thundered, accusing women legislators of his PAÍS Alliance of “disloyalty” and “treason” for proposing to permit abortion in cases of rape. If they persisted, he threatened to resign as president, and even after they backed down, the authoritarian leader who describes himself as a “humanist, Catholic and leftist” demanded that the deputies be sanctioned and possibly thrown out of office.

Correa’s virulent opposition to legalization of abortion was immediately saluted by some of the most reactionary forces. The head of Ecuador’s Episcopal Conference, Monsignor Antonio Arregui, hailed the president’s vituperation against abortion, in particular the “courage and nobility in the way he expressed himself.” The Fundación Nacional Francisco Franco, promoting the legacy of the ultra-rightist Catholic nationalist and misogynist (anti-woman) Spanish dictator, joined the chorus of praise. The fact that Correa was not alone among “leftist” nationalists in the region, was not lost on the imperialist press. The Madrid daily El País (26 October) headlined an article, “The Pious Left of Latin America.”

Against this unholy alliance of right and “left” against women’s rights, the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International call for the repeal of all laws penalizing or restricting abortion, and fight for free abortion on demand, in safe, high-quality medical facilities. Whether to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is for the woman, and her alone, to decide, for it is her body and she will bear the consequences. Bishops and capitalist politicians, hands off! We call to defend abortion clinics and to mobilize against the reactionary bigots who would endanger and ruin the lives of women (and even murder abortion providers) in the name of the “right to life” of an embryo or fetus, which is not a separate being but a developing organism that is biologically united with and dependent on the woman.

The issue of the right to abortion in Ecuador is quite concrete: according to the World Health Organization and the national Health Ministry, an estimated 125,000 abortions are performed annually in the country – 350 a day in a country of 15 million people. Complications due to clandestine abortions are the third most frequent cause of death for women. In a recent study of 18,000 Ecuadorian homes by the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC) and the Ministry of the Interior, one out of four women aged 15 and above have experienced sexual abuse, and six out of ten women have suffered domestic abuse. Hospitals report that they receive around 20,000 to 30,000 women each year due to complications of back-alley abortions.

Since 1971, the Penal Code of Ecuador has stipulated, under Sections 441-447 of Article 149, that abortion can be legal only in cases where the life of the woman is seriously endangered and for rape victims who are mentally impaired. Otherwise, under current law any medical personnel performing the abortion face two to five years jail, and the woman could be imprisoned for one to five years.

The current session of the legislative assembly has been devoted to Correa’s project for a global overhaul of Ecuador’s criminal laws. Among the proposals of the COIP (Integral Organic Penal Code) was a new Article 150, which would sanction medical professionals in all cases that involve terminating a pregnancy. In response, on October 10 Alianza País (AP) legislator Soledad Buendía appealed for the decriminalization of abortion in cases of rape. Another AP assemblywoman, Paola Pabón, proposed a motion to permit abortion during the first trimester (12 weeks) in the case of a victim of rape, and to reject the proposed Article 150. As they spoke, activists of the Front for the Defense of Sexual and Reproductive Rights demonstrated outside.

Around 7 p.m., the Assembly took a short recess. However, that then led to tabling the motion until the next day, and later that night President Correa went live on Oramar TV with his diatribe:

“When they talk of decriminalizing abortion, the constitution clearly says to the contrary, defend life beginning with conception. Anything that goes against that is simply treason.... I will never approve the decriminalization of abortion beyond what’s in the current law. What’s more, if these betrayals and disloyalty continue … I will resign from office.”

Along with the praise of Archbishop Arregui of Guayaquil, Guillermo Lasso, leader of the right-wing bourgeois opposition CREO, chimed in with his total support for the president. Reeling under the blowback, the next day in the Legislative Assembly, Paola Pabón capitulated. In her speech of surrender, after first saying to Correa that “with the immense affection we have for you, we say that this time you are wrong,” she continued: “to maintain the unity of this parliamentary fraction [of the AP] … I withdraw my motion.”

Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa with Catholic pope Francis, ferocious opponents of abortion. It is the woman’s right: politicians and clerics, hands off! (Photo: EFE)

Not content with forcing the withdrawal of the motion, “tough guy” Correa insisted that the AP sanction Pabón, Soledad Buendía and Gina Godoy. And in fact, the three assemblywomen were suspended from their posts for the entire month of November for daring to propose even this extremely limited liberalization of laws against abortion. While this public humiliation of the women lawmakers had an unmistakable male chauvinist tone, it also reflected the increasingly authoritarian character of Correa’s presidency, in which all manner of left-wing dissent is subjected to state repression.

Criminalization of Social Protest in Correa’s Ecuador

Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa gained a certain reputation as a champion of liberty earlier this year in hinting at the possibility of granting asylum to Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who revealed the massive spying on civilians by the U.S. National Security Agency. Correa has also celebrated the 2008 Constitution he sponsored as an example of “participatory democracy.” Yet on the day the Constituent Assembly that wrote the Constitution opened, Correa’s government unleashed a brutal assault on the Amazonian parish of Dayuma where indigenous rebels had the temerity to block a road, shutting down oil production. That pattern, of spouting democratic rhetoric while repressing social protest, has continued ever since.

The authoritarian actions by the populist Correa have escalated sharply in his third term, after winning the February presidential election in a landslide (57%). In June, the summus pontifex of the Andean republic launched his offensive against independent movements of workers, peasants, Indians and leftists with presidential Decree 016. Their membership, finances, statutes and political statements would henceforth be subject to state control. Under this decree, labor unions are now banned from making political statements or supporting candidates. Likewise for indigenous groups, so that the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) is now forbidden to work with the bourgeois political party, Pachakutik, it spawned.

This imposition of state tutelage of all social movements was then backed up by heavy-duty judicial repression, accusing leftists of “terrorism” and sabotage.” Last year Pachakutik legislator Pepe Acacho and Shuar Indian leader Pedro Mashiant were sentenced to 12 years in prison on these trumped-up charges for leading a 2009 protest in which a Shuar professor was killed in a clash with the police. Another Pachakutik deputy, Cléver Jiménez, was sentenced to 18 months in jail along with two union leaders under Article 494 of the penal code ordering imprisonment for those who insult or falsely accuse government authorities. Even high school students have been arrested for protesting.

The Struggle for the Liberation of Women

In the end, the reform of the Ecuadoran penal code was approved by the National Assembly on December 17. The proposed Article 150, which would have punished medical professionals for performing any abortion whatsoever, was dropped. But the previous law banning more than 99% of all abortions was maintained, with slight modifications. Even as opinion polls show two-thirds of the public supporting the right to abortion in case of rape, the legislators refused to permit abortions even in the case of girls age 14 and under. This defeat for women’s rights was the result of submission to the dictates of the president and the bourgeois parties.

Not only did the Alianza PAÍS legislators capitulate before Correa’s threats, so did much of the supposedly socialist left. Demonstrating outside the National Assembly as the issue was being debated, a spokeswomen for the Juventud Comunista del Ecuador (JCE), called for permitting abortions for young girls, “but she made clear that it [the movement] would continue to support the government program focusing on improving social, educational and living conditions through dialogue” (El Telégrafo [Guayaquil], 14 December). Some “dialogue”! Anyone who dissents from the president’s line is accused of “treason,” and those who protest in the streets against it are jailed for “terrorism” and “sabotage”!

The Partido Comunista Marxista Leninista del Ecuador (PCMLE) supported the call for “decriminalization of abortion, for which women’s organizations and left-wing political groups have fought for decades” (En Marcha, 1 November). That is interesting coming from a party that displays on the front page of its newspaper an effigy of Stalin, who in 1936 outlawed abortion, reversing the Bolshevik legacy.2 The PCMLE may even call to “Defeat Capitalist Rule to Achieve Women’s Liberation” (En Marcha, 4 March 2011). But as arch-Stalinists, it poses the issue essentially as one of democratic rights, without going to the roots of female social inequality in the family. (It is also practically silent on the issue of homosexual rights.)

The pioneer socialist Charles Fourier declared that the degree of emancipation of women is a key measure of the degree of social progress in a society. Already in the Communist Manifesto (1848), the founders of modern communism spoke of the abolition (Aufhebung), or superseding of the family in order to “do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.” Friedrich Engels, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), traced women’s oppression to the rise of class society, in which the institution of the family arose in order to transmit property, turning the woman into the property of her master. Recognizing this, the victorious Bolsheviks championed the emancipation of women from domestic slavery.

In Latin America today, abortion is still banned in almost all instances except for Cuba and a few other places (Guyana, Puerto Rico and recently Uruguay and Mexico City). As we have stressed before, while the right to abortion is a democratic right it will not be made a reality for all women without hard class struggle leading to a socialist revolution. The opposition of Rafael Correa and other “left-wing” populists to women’s reproductive rights is part of their support for capitalism, despite all their phony rhetoric about introducing “21st century socialism” without expropriating capital. As Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin noted in his article “Soviet Power and the Status of Women” (1919):

“In words, bourgeois democracy promises equality and liberty. In fact, not a single bourgeois republic, not even the most advanced one, has given the feminine half of the human race either full legal equality with men or freedom from the guardianship and oppression of men… Bourgeois democracy is democracy of pompous phrases, solemn words, exuberant promises and the high sounding slogans of freedom and equality.”

Protest in New York City, initiated by the Internationalist Group, against El Salvador’s abortion ban, June 2013. (Internationalist photo)

Marxists understand that under capitalism, the system of private property and production for profit places severe limits to genuine social equality of women. As we noted in an article in defense of a young woman, “Beatriz,” denied the right to a therapeutic abortion in El Salvador: “It is no coincidence that the first country to legalize abortion was Soviet Russia, in 1920, as a result of the October Revolution.” In fact, the Bolsheviks introduced “free abortion on demand,” just as the League for the Fourth International calls for today. We noted that “the oppression of women will not be abolished by mere legislative reforms,” and raised a working-class program pointing to the need for a socialist revolution, including demands for:

–“Down with El Salvador’s Abortion Ban!The Internationalist (June 2013)

Just as the fight for decriminalization of abortion is linked to the struggle against the repressive policies of the Correa government, the struggle for women’s liberation cannot be separated from the broader struggle against the social oppression engendered by capitalism. In Ecuador, women workers, indigenous women and Afro Ecuadorian women will be key leaders of socialist revolution. Women fighters for the oppressed have played a key role throughout the history of Ecuador, particularly in the struggles of the indigenous peoples. Manuela León led the December 1871 revolt in Yaruquies, Chimborazo while Juana Calcan led an uprising in 1899 in Pesillo in northern Ecuador with her infant daughter Lucia Lechón on her back.3

In the 20th century, Dolores Cuacuango was an organizer of the peasant unions of Cayambe, founder of the Ecuadorian Indian Federation (FEI), a pioneer of bilingual indigenous education, a leading fighter for women’s rights and a leader of the Communist Party, as well as a champion of equality for black and mulatto Ecuadorians. As Trotskyists, we fight for the program of permanent revolution to emancipate the working class and all the oppressed, including poor peasants, indigenous peoples and Afro-Ecuadorians, fighting for a workers, peasants and Indian government to begin the socialist revolution. Particularly today, with one-tenth of Ecuador’s population forced to emigrate, that revolution can only be completed on the international scale.

For women’s liberation through socialist revolution! ■

  1. 1. See our article, “Civic Revolution or Workers Revolution? Ecuador Needs a Workers, Peasants and Indian Government,” The Internationalist (December 2007)
  2. 2. See Leon Trotsky, “Thermidor in the Family,” in The Revolution Betrayed (1936)
  3. 3. Marc Becker, Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador’s Modern Indigenous Movements (2008)