Abortion and Women’s Rights: A Conversation with Patty Zegarra

I.

In Argentina, where it all started, the green handkerchief can be found everywhere these days; tied to the necks and the wrists of women and men, as part of their hairstyle, hanging from purses, bags and backpacks, on bikes, cars, strollers, and even tied to pets and around trees. It is also painted on the walls, hanging on windows and balconies and, of course, tied to the fence around the Congress.

  • From “The Green Handkerchief” by Patty Zegarra 

Throughout Latin America, green handkerchiefs symbolize the fight to legalize abortion

 II. 

Erick and I are sitting across from Patty Zegarra at a coffee shop in Mitte. Patty and Erick have been friends since 2011 and I’ve come along to help interview Patty about the experiences that led to her work with the non-profit Women Help Women, and the work that they do there. We start by talking about how Patty found herself in Buenos Aires, where she met Erick. 

“I moved to Argentina because I wanted to. That’s the truth. I was 26 years old, I was living in Lima, Peru and working at a bank. I decided that this was not what I wanted to do, that this was not a good life to live, and I quit the job and moved to Buenos Aires. I think Buenos Aires is a very interesting city, very culturally and politically active. Because I always read a lot, I already had some political awareness, but I think it all really started when I moved to Buenos Aires. I was living by myself, meeting different people, seeing a different reality from mine. It all started when I was out of my comfort zone. There’s a before and after in my life for everything, not just politics, when I moved to Buenos Aires.” 

III. 

“What was your experience learning about sex and reproductive health in Peru?” I asked. 

“We didn’t,” Patty answered. “Peru is still a very conservative and religious country. I went to an all girls Catholic private school. We only had one class on sexual education, one hour, or maybe forty-five minutes.” 

“Once?” asks Eric.

“Once,” she said. “We were fifteen, so we’d already had our periods. We learned about menstruation. More or less we saw a drawing of ovaries and fallopian tubes. We didn’t talk about sex, sexual diseases, pregnancy or abortion. That was my school, I’m not saying every school is like that. It should be by law that all schools, public or private, have some type of established curriculum. 

They didn’t tell us specifically not to have sex. They just didn’t mention it. At my house, too, we didn’t have ‘the talk.’ At that moment, also, the internet wasn’t what it was today.” 

I nod, reminded of the conservative Christian school I attended growing up in Tennessee. The eighth grade girls were sat down in the Social Studies classroom. Once, maybe twice. “When should you start to have sex?” asked my middle school guidance counselor, without looking at any one in particular. 

Silence. A girl from the basketball team raised her hand. 

“Two years after marriage.” 

We laughed, none of us sure of the right answer. Pregnancy was grounds for expulsion from the school. We learned about sexual diseases (disgusting, potentially disfiguring) and that the human body was like gum everyone you had sex with would chew. My sexual knowledge stemmed primarily from  a boy named Zach, who I had been kissing in movie theaters over the summer, and from the fact that my best friend in elementary school had the computer game The Sims. I zoned out for the rest of the 45 minute-long sex-ed class, feeling old.

IV. 

“I was in Peru, I was 19 years old. It was very traumatic, and very hard, and I had complications so I ended up in the hospital. I did not talk about it again, ever, until I was like 27 or 28 years old. Almost 10 years of silence. It was not a religious thing. Abortion was so strongly stigmatized. I didn’t feel regret, I just couldn’t talk about it openly. This was a clandestine operation. In Peru abortion is only legal if the mother’s health is at risk. I was in a relationship back then and my boyfriend found a doctor we could go to, but I couldn’t Google him. I did not know if he was going to do a good job. We knew nothing—still now I don’t know his name. I don’t know who he was.

“We know now that abortion doesn’t need to be dangerous or complicated, but back then, in Latin America, it was very common to try different methods. Weird herbal teas. Some very poor people will try to do it themselves. It’s not that the complications are or are not rare, it just depends on the procedure, or what kind of doctor, or what kind of pills you can get. In most places in Latin America, and in Africa and Asia, abortion is illegal. People will do whatever they can to stop the pregnancy.”

V. 

The green handkerchief is a sign of complicity. It is knowing that we are fighting for the same cause, that we are not alone. It represents the struggle for the right to decide on our bodies and our lives, the fight against discrimination, poverty and the absence of sexual education. Whoever wears it is demanding the exercise, not only of women’s sexual and reproductive rights, but of women’s human rights. It is a sign of conscience. 

  • From “The Green Handkerchief” by Patty Zegarra 

VI. 

“After Argentina I moved to Brazil. I lived in Argentina for five years and I moved to Brazil with my partner at that moment. This was in 2017. We thought Brazil might be a good place to live, and that we could teach languages. We ended up in a favela in Rio and we were also teaching there in the community we were living in as volunteers. That wasn’t the plan at the beginning, but we were there and they needed English teachers in the school. After two weeks of living there, really in the beginning, I found out I was pregnant. 

We didn’t have any friends yet, we didn’t speak the language. We were completely alone. It’s not just that we couldn’t have a child under those circumstances, because we didn’t have enough money and we were living in the favelas, but also that I didn’t want to be pregnant. In Brazil, abortion is still illegal. It’s not penalized under certain circumstances, like rape or incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk or the fetus is not viable, but it’s not possible to get it on demand. I had in the back of my head my previous experience, so I didn’t want to look for a random doctor I didn’t know in Brazil. I couldn’t communicate with him. That was not an option. 

“I was thinking about going back to Argentina, because even though it’s also not legal on demand, I had some doctor friends who offered to help me and let me stay at their house. I had some resources there. It was never an option for me to go back to Peru. Still, even after all these years, for me to tell my family that this was the situation… I just wouldn’t. So, even though I was already aware of so many things about reproductive rights- I was not yet fighting for the legalization of abortion in Latin America and around the world, but I understood it was not a bad thing, crime, or sin. If we need it, it should be part of healthcare. Even though I was aware of all of this, it was not possible for me to go back and tell my parents. And I was 32 years old.

“I was organizing my trip back to Argentina when  my partner said, ‘I’ve been researching and I found this webpage.’ I completely rejected the idea of an organization that could help me through a website. But he said, ‘Just read it. It’s a Dutch NGO and it looks real. They’re not even asking for money.’” 

VII. 

There are many reasons why we should talk about our abortions. Sharing our stories is essential to know that we are not alone. It is important to stop blaming ourselves and to understand that it is not just a personal problem, it is a social problem. It happens to other people too. We need to stop treating abortions like something taboo. It is therapeutic to talk about it, it frees us from the burden and makes us heal and understand our own experiences better. It reduces the shame and guilt, and it helps us spread information and protect other women’s rights.

Women are expected to feel guilty and uncomfortable about their abortions. We are expected to regret it. So we are not only being told if we can have it or not, we are also being told what we should feel about it. When the truth is, that it is normal to feel a lot of different emotions, including relief, confidence and hope.

  • From “Talking about My Abortion” by Patty Zegarra 

VIII. 

The organization Patty and her partner discovered while living in Brazil was Women Help Women, a Dutch NGO which is described on its website as being comprised of “feminist activists, trained counsellors, medical professionals, and researchers based across 4 continents who have a strong focus on supporting self-managed abortion, especially in places where abortion is restricted by laws, stigma and lack of access.”

“I made contact with them through email,” Patty told us. “Women Help Women provides  information [about reproductive healthcare], and concrete help and assistance to women around the globe. The woman from the organization guided me step by step through all my questions. Even though I had a previous procedure, there was so much I didn’t know. The internet is full of misinformation about abortion. Myths, lies from antiabortion people who create pages filled with fake information.”

For information that dispells common abortion myths, click here. 

“Women Help Women is all remote; the main project is the webpage. The main responsibility is to have contact with people throughout the world via email. The website has information and a pregnancy calculator that helps you more or less know which week of pregnancy you are in.

“A few years after receiving abortion pills from Women Help Women, who delivered them to her in the favela where she was living, Patty began working for the organization as a volunteer. 

IX. 

The abortion pill is actually two medications: mifepristone and misoprostol. Taken in combination, they can be used to safely end a pregnancy within the first 70 days by blocking progesterone, which the body needs to continue a pregnancy. The blocking of progesterone causes the uterine lining to shed similarly to a monthly period. The pills are safe and effective, so why are they so hard to access, even in countries where abortion is nominally legal, such as the United States? 

Erin Blakemore, in her article “The Criminalization of Abortion Began as Business Tactic”, describes a New York Herald ad advertising pills to end the obstruction of the monthly period as early as the 1840s. Her abbreviated history of abortion-inducing pills in the United States points to a global reality: while abortion care has existed, in one form or another, since ancient times, the politicization of abortion, obscured by religious or pseudoscientific appeals to women’s health, is dangerous and unnatural, and disproportionally impacts the economically disadvantaged.  

At our meeting in early March, Patty put it this way: “For moral reasons, for religious reasons, I think [the stigmatization and denial of abortion care] is another way to control our lives, and to control our bodies. We want women to be mothers. We shouldn’t think that women have to be mothers, or give birth, to give their lives meaning. But also, it’s just power. It’s another way of maintaining gender inequality. It’s another means of violence against women.” 

X. 

With the arrival of the 21st century came a new feminist wave in Latin America that acknowledges how poverty and social roles determine and exacerbate the exploitation of women and gender inequality. At this point the women’s movement in Argentina developed various campaigns that demand the construction of a more equal and fair society, fighting for the elimination of all forms of violence against women. 

Among these campaigns, the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion was created, which is committed to the integrity of human rights. This campaign seeks the legalization of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, with the aim of expanding rights and combating social injustices that affect only pregnant people. It focuses on three fundamental rights: the right to health, with abortion being the primary cause of maternal death in Argentina since 1980; gender equality, as the abortion ban penalizes only women or pregnant people; and social justice, since the illegality of abortions discriminates by social class, residence, age and educational level.

 In 2003, during the XVIII National Meeting of Women in the city of Rosario, the founders of the campaign thought of representing the struggle through a symbol that would make visible the demand for the right to abortion. And that’s how the green handkerchief appeared. It was born as a symbol of identity of feminist struggles for the right to legal abortion in Argentina. This symbol has the campaign slogan written in white letters: “Sexual education to decide, contraceptives to avoid abortion, legal abortion to not die”.

  • From “The Green Handkerchief” by Patty Zegarra 

X.  

“I would love to do bigger things, of course, to be involved with more organizations,” Patty told us.

“To be in contact with women and pregnant people who need information. I hope I get there in the future. I still think that small things count a lot, like spreading information, having enough information to help someone find help. To let people know their options. There was not that information for me when I was in these moments for several reasons: because I didn’t research, because I didn’t feel safe, because I was in countries where it was illegal, because I was isolated. Knowing someone who had an abortion, knowing someone who has information, is a very big step. That’s why I do this work as a volunteer with Women Help Women and as a part of this short film.” 

“I always have to keep a job to pay my bills, which consumes my time. I would love to put more energy and time into helping, so I would love to be able to get to the point where I can get paid to do this work.” 

“It’s hard to devote all of your time to this cause, because you have to make a living,” Erick adds.

“I would say, if there are some students who want to get involved, the most important thing is just to talk about it. Be open. We all know someone who’s had an abortion. Even if you think you don’t, you probably do. More than one, probably. Now that you know about Women Help Women, you can tell people about this.” 

Patty Zegarra. Credit: Patty Zegarra

While we support access to abortion, this piece is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice and, wherever possible, a medical expert should be consulted.

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