Puerto Rican Women Are Finding It Difficult To Access Abortion Related Health Care Putting Their Health At Risk
For those of you who may have been living under a rock, or just genuinely can’t keep up with the news now that there’s usually a new catastrophe or political gaffe from the Trump administration on a daily basis, it’s probably a good idea to recap what happened around Hurricane Maria.
On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, devastating the region and sparking an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. While recovery efforts have been in the works, abortion care has been largely ignored by authorities, leading to another set of problems that need to be addressed before Puerto Rico can really say that it’s moved on from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Granted: there’s so much more to consider than just simply boosting abortion facilities in Puerto Rico.
According to a 2008 study in the Journal of Population Economics, birth rates increase in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Let’s face it, anyone put in the same position would agree: if there’s no access to power, no way of really going anywhere, and there are zero things to do otherwise … you’re gonna have sex. Even though the world is pretty much falling apart around you! Part of the risks of this behavior, beyond focusing on bonking rather than safety awareness during a natural disaster, is the fact that condoms and other contraceptives aren’t necessarily readily accessible in this time. It means that if you’re not intending on getting pregnant, then this situation could put you in perilous circumstances.
The lack of regional resources after a natural disaster is not only hard af for new families – it’s also hard on people who are seeking ways to terminate their pregnancy. Where Puerto Rico is concerned, of the six abortion clinics on the main island, only one was in operation in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. However, it took nine days for that single clinic to get its doors open again. And from there, the damage from the cataclysmic storms meant that the centre didn’t have two air conditioning units or its heating system, and it had to run on a generator for three months. Because power was so expensive at this time, it meant that the clinic also had to cut its hours of operation. And if you think this is bad – that’s just the trials and tribulations of one clinic. Imagine the difficulty in trying to get others open.
Sure, there’s a problem. But aren’t there more important things to deal with in Puerto Rico, first?
Recovery from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has been mighty slow. In fact, it took an entire year for power to be restored to the region. Poor sanitation in the area led to the spread of water-borne sicknesses, while spoiled food and contaminated drinking water also harmed the population. Pests and bugs further caused havoc and spread disease, in addition to mold and mildew. Not to mention the fact that cleanup activities also introduced further hazards to locals, and opened the potential for further injury and infections. Natural disasters are associated with a decline in the mental health of a population, too, meaning that psychological services are in dire need in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, ‘why are we worried about access to abortion care when there are so many other, more urgent, things to think about’? And sure, you’re not entirely wrong. But the reality is that access to healthcare services in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is crucial for reducing further loss of human life. And that healthcare must be holistic. Because while healthcare is great for recovery from injuries and treating disease, these are reactive measures to the issue at hand. Family planning and abortion care fall into the category of preventative measures, to ensure that the unintended pregnancies don’t place further stress on very limited services and resources.
The issues we’re seeing now are part of bigger, systemic problems that must be addressed for Puerto Rico’s wellbeing.
As an unincorporated territory of the US, it stands to reason that Puerto Rico should have received considerable support from Washington DC. While no-one could forget the classic shot of Donald Trump basketball-shooting paper towels into a crowd of disaster-stricken Puerto Ricans, it’s been argued that the region was, overall, lacking in support and attention from the administration. And this criticism wasn’t a new thing. Puerto Rico’s been dealing with the Zika epidemic, which affected 1 in 7 newborns between 2016 and 2018, while also contending with the shutdown of 66 of 69 major hospitals in the region due to Hurricane Maria. It also has the highest poverty rate over any US state, while also getting less money and resource from the federal government for health programs. Yikes.
This raises questions around Puerto Rico’s representation in Washington: as it is not a state, it doesn’t have a vote in Congress. And, it only has one non-voting member of the House, known as a Resident Commissioner. Who knows what kind of improvements in assistance could have been made for Puerto Rico, if it had the right kind of political representation?
Beyond the federal level, Puerto Rico must also contend with the rise of conservatism.
Pushback against access to family planning services, which largely draws from pervasive religious doctrine, has risen in recent years. For example, 2018 saw a really aggressive attempts to restrict abortion access in Puerto Rico. While the Senator responsible for the bill, Nayda Venegas Brown, eventually pulled it from consideration, it was designed to institute a mandatory 48-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions, parental consent for minors, and a ban on the procedure outright after 20 weeks gestation. And sure, while these may seem like pretty common laws for those living on mainland US, these kinds of restrictions are basically unheard of in Puerto Rico.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, these kinds of limitations would add even more complexity to unwanted pregnancies in Puerto Rico. For example, without access to appropriate healthcare services, people may not have even known about their pregnancy until much later in their gestational cycle. Another thing to consider is that, should there be complications in the pregnancy, women may have their lives further jeopardized by restrictions on performing abortions. And, minors who may not be in contact with their parents would then become dependent on those same parents to access an abortion. Indeed, it is fortunate that Puerto Ricans were not subject to such blanket laws – particularly while they’re still dealing with the repercussions of Hurricane Maria.
So, for those of you sitting at home wondering what you can do about the predicament facing Puerto Rico, you’ve got a few options. It’s worth investigating charities in your local area that are dedicated towards providing support to Puerto Rico. Voting for candidates in the 2020 elections that have proposed policies to support Puerto Rico is also crucial. Additionally, improving awareness about women’s rights by sharing accurate information on social media – like this piece – can help break down the stigma around family planning.