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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

August 26, 1994

Air Date: August 26, 1994


Illegal Abortion in Mexico / Martha Honey

Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the run-up to this fall’s UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Supporters say safe and legal abortion is essential to reducing high birth rates and improving the status of women . . .while opponents, especially the Vatican, have fought any efforts to ease restrictions on abortion. But behind the debate is the stark reality that as many as 15 million women around the world risk their health and even their lives to illegally terminate unwanted pregnancies. Mexico is one country where abortion is generally illegal but still commonplace. Reporter Martha Honey explores the veiled world of abortion there. (15:17)

Population and Patriarchy

Host Steve Curwood talks with Patricia Hynes, author of Taking Population Out of the Equation. Hynes, who is a Visiting Professor of Environmental Policy at Tufts University, argues that solving the problems which lead to unsustainable population growth will require more than meeting the unmet needs of women — it will also require reining in the excessive power of men. (04:10)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jill Kaufman
REPORTERS: Steve Krueger, Mike Shatz, Martha Honey
GUEST: Prof. Patricia Hynes

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Women around the world are dying not to have children. Literally. Up to 15 million a year have illegal abortions, and many pay with their lives. In Mexico, thousands face this difficult decision.

MARIA: I really didn't want to do it. But I realized that given our economic situation, I couldn't have any more children. And I was so upset when I got there because I was so afraid of what my daughters would say.

CURWOOD: Also, shifting the focus from booming population to patriarchy.

HYNES: Who does not want women to have access to birth control and abortion? Often it starts in the home with the husband. Then it extends out to male politicians and to the local sort of religious hierarchy.

CURWOOD: A look at population on Living on Earth, right after this news.

Environmental News

KAUFMAN: I'm Jill Kaufman with this summary of environmental news. More than a million acres of forest in the western United States have been destroyed by wildfires. One of the largest was the Tyee Creek fire in Washington State. It's turned more than 200 square miles of pine forest into stands of charred wood. Steve Krueger of KPLU in Seattle reports that in addition to the lives and livelihoods lost, the destruction of habitat poses a life and death dilemma for wildlife.

KRUEGER: There have always been forest fires, but Susan Peterson of the US Forest Service says government efforts to prevent little fires from becoming big fires have actually made this summer's blazes worse.

PETERSON: Historically, a couple of hundred years ago, fires came through this area, oh, approximately every 5 years. And with man suppressing fires, what we have, we've actually changed the ecology of the forest a bit, and when a fire does start it's able to burn a lot more intensely.

KRUEGER: Peterson says these intense fires create big problems for wildlife because the blazes incinerate much more of the habitat and food supplies the animals need for survival during the winter.

PETERSON: We know that we have 3,500 mule deer that are at this time totally displaced.

KRUEGER: So wildlife officials will spend more than a million dollars to put out more than 100 feeding stations. They may also expand the hunting season to cull the deer populations and reduce competitions for the scarce food supplies. But these measures are unnecessary, says Charlie Raines of the Sierra Club. He says they're designed more to protect people from the images of deer starving to death than to protect the deer population, which will bounce back.

RAINES: The deer may have a high mortality this year. They will come back. And as a matter of fact, in a couple, 3 years, as the brush grows up, they will have a surplus of deer.

KRUEGER: Wildlife officials are also trying to catch black bears from the burned areas and move them, and the fate of 50 spotted owls who nested in the Tyee Creek area remains unknown. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Krueger in Seattle.

KAUFMAN: Over-development may be killing a large portion of South Florida's coral reef. That's according to a 10-year study presented at the recent annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. The researchers found that as much as a third of the 200-mile-long reef along Florida Bay is dying. Biology professor James Porter of the University of Georgia says agricultural runoff, sewage, and the diversion of water from the bay are probably responsible for the deterioration of the coral reef.

PORTER: There's not one simple cause. These are multiple stressors. We're talking changes in salinity, changes in temperature, changes in turbidity, changes in nutrients, and all of those are affected by human activity.

KAUFMAN: Other theories suggest tourism or global warming may be harming the reef, but Porter believes the decline in water quality is the most likely cause since the part of the reef that's dying is closest to Florida Bay. This is Living on Earth.

Researchers studying the Gulf of Mexico are puzzled by the size and persistence of a huge so-called "dead zone" off the coast of Louisiana. Large numbers of fish are avoiding the area, which is the size of New Jersey. Scientists believe that microorganisms found in runoff from the Mississippi River are depleting the water of oxygen, making the area uninhabitable for marine life. Researchers had expected the dead zone to shrink after last summer's flood waters receded, but now say they have no idea why it has not.

The worst drought in Japanese history has caused water shortages across the entire island nation. The dry spell has become so acute that some companies have begun importing water. From Tokyo, Mike Shatz reports.

SHATZ: Some of Japan's key industries plan to import nearly 10 million gallons of water to cope with the shortage. Water purchased from Alaska will arrive in early September in western Japan, where supplies have been cut 30%. Water is also being shipped in from South Korea and China. The record heat wave and dry spell have also forced rationing of water to some 3 million households nationwide, and the drought has caused more than $100 million in farm damage. With patience running thin, Tokyo area water officials plan to use rain-making equipment mothballed since 1987 to seed clouds. Meanwhile, conservationists are calling on the government to subsidize purchases of rainwater storage tanks for homes and businesses to help prevent future shortages. For Living On Earth, I'm Mike Shatz in Tokyo.

KAUFMAN: Officials in Colombia are considering tougher environmental laws in order to slow down the destruction of the nation's rainforest. According to Reuters, the head of Columbia's forest conservation effort, Fernando Casas Casteneda, says over 400 million acres of rainforest are lost every year. Forty percent of it is already gone and he says if ranching and timber operations are not slowed, Colombia's rainforest ecosystem could be completely destroyed in 15 years.

That's this summary of environmental news. I'm Jill Kaufman.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Illegal Abortion in Mexico

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the debate over global population growth, and this fall's UN conference on population and development is the latest forum. Supporters of population control say safe and legal abortion is essential to reducing high birth rates. Feminists say it's crucial to improving the status of women. But conservatives, including a new alliance between the Vatican and the Islamic fundamentalist government of Iran, have fought doggedly against any efforts to ease restrictions on abortion. But behind the increasingly pitched debate, there's a stark reality. Millions of women around the world continue to risk their health, and even their lives, to terminate unwanted pregnancies. According to one recent study, 15 million women a year have unlawful abortions. Millions suffer health problems as a result, and at least 200,000 die. Mexico is a conservative country with a strong Catholic church, which has lowered its birth rate from 7 children per woman to 3 over the past 20 years, while keeping abortion illegal in all but the rarest of cases. Still, abortion is commonplace. An estimated half million Mexican women have unlawful abortions each year. We sent reporter Martha Honey to Mexico to explore the secret world of abortion there, and she filed this report. The names of some women in the stories have been changed at their request.

(Office and traffic noises)

HONEY: Carmen is a receptionist and sex education teacher. All day long she handles the telephones, typing, and other people's problems. She appears warm, competent, and self-assured. But inside she's carrying a secret, which until now, she says, she's told no one. When she was just 20 she became pregnant. She and her boyfriend were not planning to get married. They had little money and Carmen hoped to continue her studies.

CARMEN (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: One part of me wanted a baby. The other said no, this isn't the moment because of many things. This is a small town and everyone knows one another. We wanted privacy for our problem. So we went to the public library and talked to friends, and they gave us the address of a doctor who could do an abortion.

HONEY: For 2 days, Carmen and her boyfriend debated, and finally decided to go ahead.

CARMEN (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: It was a small clinic. I remember well how it was. When we saw our doctor, she told us that it was against the law, that we shouldn't talk with anyone. She gave us a paper which said something, that I would feel some pain, and that if anything happened it wasn't their responsibility. When I awoke, I was crying. It was something which took me years to get over. I couldn't confide in my friends, or my family.

(Street sounds: pedestrians, a flutist performing)

HONEY: Maria lives in Mexico City. It's the world's largest city, and even Chapultepec Park, where Maria goes to rest on Sunday, is crowded. During the week, Maria works as a domestic servant and is raising 3 daughters on her small salary. Her husband died when she was just 19, and over the years 2 other men walked out on her just after she became pregnant. She says she knew nothing about family planning or contraceptives. About 4 years ago she discovered that once again she was pregnant. For the first time she decided to try to have an abortion.

MARIA: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: I really didn't want to do it. But I realized that given our economic situation, I couldn't have any more children. I took some pills and then an injection, but it didn't do anything for me. So I went to another friend who recommended a doctor. And I was so upset when I got there because I was so afraid of what my daughters would say.

HONEY: And were you able to talk with anybody else about the abortion?

MARIA (through translator): I didn't talk to anyone about this.

HONEY: So it really is like a private secret that you are carrying with you.

MARIA: [Yes. Yes.]

HONEY: For years, Carmen and Maria have hidden their secret, and their guilt. They have felt isolated, but they are hardly alone. Despite the country's successful family planning campaign, still about two thirds of Mexican women between the ages of 15 and 44 don't use any contraceptives, making unwanted pregnancies here commonplace. It's estimated that more than a half million Mexican women have clandestine abortions each year, as many as 4 million in all of Latin America. Carmen and Maria are actually among the lucky ones. They were treated by doctors and suffered no long-term physical scars. A health educator working in Mexico City says poor women are usually forced to use traditional or crude methods, often with terrible consequences.

TRANSLATOR: They may take teas made from different herbs. They may insert sticks, wires, or bottles into their vaginas. They may take some medications that could be very dangerous. They'll carry heavy things, fall down stairs, do excess exercise to provoke an abortion. The woman may get infected, suffer hemorrhaging, she could be poisoned, or she could have perforations of the vagina, uterus, intestines, or bladder. Lots of complications.

(Street traffic)

HONEY: Along this street of single-story row houses on the edge of one of Mexico's main cities is a private clinic, with a small sign in the window that says "Family Practice." The blinds are shut, the front door is locked, and it has a 2-way mirror in the center. Inside, there's a desk, a hospital table, and a doctor. He talks frankly, but he keeps peering through the blinds, checking the street outside. He says he does abortions for ethical reasons. He's seen women in great need. He estimates he's done over 5,000, for rich and poor women, charging them from about $100 to $1,500. He talks fast; another patient is expected in a few minutes. The doctor says women usually don't ask directly for an abortion. They use code words, such as saying that they want help in starting their periods again. He says the police know about his operation, and they have extorted money and demanded free abortions for their girlfriends in return for leaving him alone.

(A noisy hospital)

HONEY: But most Mexican women who decide to abort can't afford to go to a private clinic. One way or another they start the process. Then many end up in places like this: a social security maternity hospital. Dr. Neomi Ehrenfeld works in a government hospital in Mexico City. She says that under Mexico's law, doctors must treat women who come with an abortion in progress. That law has helped to keep Mexico's death rate from illegal abortions lower than in most of the rest of Latin America. But beginning an abortion is still a crime, and if a woman comes to the hospital with what appears to be an induced abortion, Ehrenfeld says the doctor is supposed to call the police.

EHRENFELD: Which is absolutely stupid, because not only you have women at high risk, but once you cure the high risk and you healed all the physical condition, immediately she walks to the jail. Physicians in general don't call the police.

HONEY: Dr. Jose David Ortiz is a gynecologist with Mexico's Health Ministry, in the northern industrial city Monterrey. Like Dr. Ehrenfeld, he never calls the police, but he otherwise tries to work within the parameters of Mexican law. Dr. Ortiz is part of an international organization which is teaching doctors and nurses to use manual vacuum aspirators to finish abortions started outside the hospital. This is one of the safest, fastest, and most inexpensive methods for completing incomplete abortions.

ORTIZ: So this technique is very good for any of those cases, and if we improve the use of family planning methods, then we break the circle of unwanted pregnancy, no family planning, another unwanted pregnancy and then again an abortion. And one of those times maybe the patient will die. So we try to break that cycle.

HONEY: Ortiz acknowledges that the vacuum aspirator technique can easily be used to initiate abortions as well as finish them. He says that for this reason, many hospital administrators don't want their doctors to learn it. Resistance to abortion in Mexico is due in part to the strong Catholic Church, which condemns abortion as murder, and also contraceptives as micro-abortives. Women and doctors involved in abortions risk excommunication. A militant right-wing group, Pro Vida, publicly denounces clinics and doctors suspected of doing abortions, and passes out gruesome photos of dead fetuses. And ordinary Mexicans hold seemingly contradictory views. A recent Gallup Poll showed 65% of Mexicans oppose legalization of abortion, yet over 80% say the decision should ultimately be up to the woman or the couple. Mexico's family planning program has also been influenced by the policies of former US Presidents Reagan and Bush, which cut off all funding to international organizations providing abortion counseling and services. This set back Mexico's population control efforts. And it drove abortions further underground. Dr. Ortiz, for instance, lost funding for a private maternity clinic he was heading.

ORTIZ: We couldn't help many of these patients with an abortion, incomplete or induced or spontaneous, that comes to the hospitals, which was a terrible mistake that many of the programs, many things, they just will cancel. Because for that stupid policy.

HONEY: The Clinton Administration has reversed this policy, and US funding for family planning in Mexico has jumped to $13 million, more than to any other Latin American country. Despite these cross-currents, no change appears likely in Mexico's abortion law. But that hasn't kept some organizations from trying to make unwanted pregnancies at once less dangerous and less frequent.

(Church bell ringing; birdsong)

HONEY: Oduna de Arriba is a small village in the rolling hills of Guanajaro. The setting is idyllic, but the health realities are harsh. Guanajaro is among Mexico's poorest states, and it ranks near the top in rates of maternal and infant mortality. And women here have on average 6 children: twice the national average.

(Music playing; a woman speaking)

HONEY: In the darkened room of an adobe house, 3 young women show a video and lead a discussion about the abortion debate. They talk with 2 dozen mothers, grandmothers, teenagers, and children. The trio are peer counselors from a private nonprofit project called CASA. CASA takes a multidimensional and community-based approach to unwanted pregnancies. The heart and soul of the operation are its 50 youthful peer counselors.

(Footfalls and birdsong)

HONEY: In the early afternoon, the three counselors - Angelika, Concepcion, and Rosaria, head down the long dirt road towards another village. Five days a week, they and other CASA counselors fan out, teaching health and sex education to an estimated 50,000 people. During their rounds the 3 young women explain that just a few years ago, they were all unemployed and 2 were new single mothers. They come from large, very poor families. They were school dropouts with no future. Then they found CASA. There they learned about health, nutrition, family planning, prenatal care, and contraceptives. They began to get control over their own lives, and then they went on to become peer counselors.

SALAS: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: The peer counselors play a very important role because they provide CASA services throughout the rural areas.

HONEY: Irma Salas is the subdirector of CASA. She says the agency has given its youth counselors expertise, a modest salary and, most importantly, self esteem and self confidence. At CASA's headquarters in the old colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, a dozen people sit on wooden benches waiting to see the doctor. The agency was started in 1981 by a North American woman and her Mexican husband. It receives funding from Mexican and US organizations. It houses doctors, a dentist, social workers, psychologists, midwives, a pharmacy, a library, and a day care center. It's about to open a modern family health center and maternity hospital. After 13 years of work, CASA officials say they can measure some of their successes. More men are coming to the clinics and sex education courses. Many of the women CASA reaches are delaying their first pregnancies until they are over 20. And virtually all say they plan to have fewer children than their mothers. But while CASA is trying to help women avoid unwanted pregnancies, Irma Salas says that still, many come seeking abortions.

SALAS (through translator): Here in CASA, when women solicit abortions or women arrive with abortions in progress, the doctor receives them. He gives his medical opinion, and then channels them to me, and we discuss other areas. Their feelings, their emotions. If she still wants an abortion, we look for the most adequate place within her means.

HONEY: CASA fears reprisals from the government, the Church, and groups like Pro Vida. It walks a tightrope as it tries to safely and humanely meet the needs of women looking for help. Again, Irma Salas.

SALAS (through translator): CASA is a place where young women feel okay. We don't ask where are you living, who is your father, who is your boyfriend. What's most important is not their past; it's their potential, and what their future can be if given a chance. The only thing we want is to reduce the number of abortions, of mothers living alone with their children, of abandoned children. And we don't want them to resolve their doubts in the streets with their friends. That's all that CASA wants.

HONEY: Irma Salas and others at CASA say there is no simple solution to the problems of unwanted pregnancies and clandestine abortions. But they believe that CASA's holistic approach to health care, family planning, and sex education, is helping to reduce abortions. And when necessary, it's helping women to safely, if not always legally, terminate pregnancies. Today the abortion question is being debated by Mexican politicians, UN conferees, and Clinton Administration and Vatican officials. However, it's projects like CASA which are dealing with the abortion reality, every day. Perhaps places like this can serve as a model for reproductive health services in Mexico, as well as in other developing countries. For Living on Earth, this is Martha Honey in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Back to top

CURWOOD: What do you think about the power of men and the problem of population growth? Call us right now on our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

(Music up and under)

Population and Patriarchy

CURWOOD: If conservative religions represent a key part of the right wing of the population debate, feminists represent an important part of the left. For years, feminist scholars have criticized coercive efforts to control population growth in the absence of better education, economic opportunity, and comprehensive health care for women. Patricia Hynes, a visiting professor of environmental policy at Tufts University, takes that view a step further. In her book, Taking Population Out of the Equation, Professor Hynes argues that solving the problems which lead to unsustainable population growth will require more than meeting the unmet needs of women. It will also require, she says, reigning in the excessive power of men.

HYNES: Patriarchy is at the root of the population problem for a number of reasons. The lack of availability of birth control and abortion for women throughout the world. Who does not make these available? Who does not want women to have access to birth control and abortion? Often it starts in the home with the husband. Then it extends out to male politicians and to the local priest or the local sort of religious hierarchy. Secondly, in countries where women have to have a son or more than one sons and will have children until they do, this son preference, which this is called, is another signal of the devaluation of women and girls. And this is another example of patriarchy.

CURWOOD: I want to ask you, though, isn't the process for the Cairo meeting saying just that? That we should promote full education, health, and free opportunities for women? Make sure they have reproductive choice and autonomy?

HYNES: The rhetoric going in to Cairo is much improved. That has been a victory, but it's not enough. It's as if this is a women's problem, as if women caused it, and as if you fix it by working with women. And I am saying that men are in this as much as women but differently from women. They are much more powerful with respect to pregnancy and birth than women are. And therefore, if we're going to address population, we should be addressing the power of men in relationship to women in the family, in the church, in society. And therefore, we need a program of educating men, not just women.

CURWOOD: Let me just ask you here, though. How much do numbers matter to you? Do they have any relevance to your discussion of population issues?

HYNES: Numbers have always had relevance to feminists. I don't think that they belong in the population debate in the way the populationists have brought them in. First of all, populationists take an approach that every human being added to the earth is causing a crisis, and equilibrate among all those human beings as if first of all, all are causing the same kind of an effect. Secondly, their analysis treats all human beings as having only and solely a negative effect upon the earth. To my mind, it is what people do, not how many children they have, that we need to look at first. And that typically means not only the consumption of the rich, but we can also look at the institutions of the industrialized countries, and I'll give an example.


HYNES: We'll take the institution of the military. Studies have shown, have estimated that up to 20% of global environmental pollution and degradation is due to the effects of the military. The small number of people who constitute the decision makers in the military are much more serious polluters than are the huge numbers of poor people on this earth.

CURWOOD: What about the idea of carrying capacity? I mean, can the earth keep having more and more and more and more people without a problem?

HYNES: No. I suspect that it cannot. I mean there are people who say that it can. I don't see it that way. The goal is not to fill every square foot with another human being. I think one of our goals is to teach ecological literacy. And by that, I mean the type of knowledge and understanding that motivates changes in behavior so that people are aware of the impacts that they have, and people in fact make decisions about the number of children that they feel they can not only afford to have but the Earth can afford.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for joining me. Patricia Hynes is visiting professor of environmental policy at Tufts University. Her new book is called Taking Population Out of the Equation. Thank you.

HYNES: Thank you.

Back to top


CURWOOD: What do you think about the power of men and the problem of population growth? Call us right now on our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, the associate producer is Kim Motylewski, and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes Jan Nunley, Jessika Bella Mura, Julia Madeson, and Colleen Singer Coxe. Our engineer at the WBUR studios is Laurie Azaria. Michael Aharon composed our theme.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and recorded at the studios of WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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