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Abortion is legal but under threat in Puerto Rico

Abortion-rights protesters demonstrate in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in July.
Alejandro Granadillo/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Abortion-rights protesters demonstrate in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in July.

The day after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a representative in the Puerto Rican legislature introduced a billpunishing "the crime of abortion" with 99 years in jail.

The bill was withdrawn the same day it was introduced, but it represents renewed interest in greatly restricting abortion in Puerto Rico after the Supreme Court threw out its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that protected abortion rights.

A new attempt to limit abortion

Abortion at any point of pregnancy is currently legal in Puerto Rico, making the island, on paper, one of the most accessible places in the Western Hemisphere for the procedure. But the fall of Roe is empowering conservative lawmakers to attempt new limits on abortion rights.

Even though 77% of Puerto Ricans living on the island believe abortion should be mostly illegal, "abortion was not really a major item on the legislative agenda until the past four years," said Yanira Reyes, co-founder of the women's rights nonprofit Inter-Mujeres Puerto Rico. "It's been converted into a talking point."

In June, five days before Roe's reversal, the Puerto Rico Senate passed a billbanning abortion after 22 weeks of gestation. The island's House of Representatives has yet to vote on the bill. Sen. Joanne Rodríguez Veve — a member of the Project Dignity party — sponsored the legislation.

"I believe in the defense of life from conception. However, today I am willing to favor Senate Bill 693," said Rodríguez Veve, speaking on the Senate floor during debate over the bill. "A bill that recognizes that a woman's right to privacy is not absolute, but that it finds limits in the face of other rights, such as the right to life expressly recognized in our constitution."

Founded in 2019, Project Dignity has followed the lead of anti-abortion groups in the continental U.S., introducing anti-abortion measures like "fetal heartbeat" bills. In the current legislative session, the party's sole senator and representative have proposed 10 bills limiting abortion rights.
"Contrary to what many people think, including people in Puerto Rico, abortion is legal," said Verónica Colón Rosario, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Women's Foundation. "With this conversation about Roe v. Wade, many people think that in Puerto Rico this right has been lost, and this is the narrative that those who are pro-life want to maintain. But it continues to be legal."

Access to abortion in Puerto Rico is limited

There are only four abortion clinics in Puerto Rico to serve more than 3.2 million people. Three of those clinics are in San Juan, the capital.

"In Puerto Rico, there are very few medical appointments available, and this includes gynecological appointments in private offices," says Frances Collazo Cáceres, abortion and advocacy adviser at the family planning clinic Profamilias. "Oftentimes, patients have to wait three or four months for an appointment with a doctor."

Cost is also a hurdle in accessing reproductive care, as abortion clinics on the island receive no public funding. Additionally, almost half of Puerto Rico's populationreceives Medicaid, which covers only one non-hormonal IUD.

"[Clinics] have almost no staff because there is no funding," Colón said. "If [abortion in] the U.S. is underfunded, Puerto Rico is the worst-case scenario. They're suffocating with their work."

Obstetrician and gynecologist Yarí Vale Moreno runs the only clinic on the island that offers abortions past 14 weeks of pregnancy. Her clinic, which provides abortions up to 24 weeks of gestation, also offers other reproductive health services, but she said she feels the impact of the lack of funding.

"Here in Puerto Rico, contraception is really hard to get. People have to have health insurance, private health insurance, to get long acting, reversible contraception and birth control pills free of charge," Vale Moreno said. "The other people that are like 60% of the population that I [treat], they're not able to get any of that. So we have to juggle a lot to be able to prescribe contraceptives for them."

"It's still a problem of access [for abortion] because people, unless they know or tell a friend, it's very hard for you to go, 'Oh, I need an abortion provider. Where can I find it?' " Vale Moreno said. "And they say, 'Oh, my doctor does it, you know,' and it is not seen as a positive. So for a lot of people, it is hush-hush."

Despite the legislative attempts to limit it, abortion remains legal on the island for now. And while abortion rights weren't a large topic of debate before the reversal of Roe, the Supreme Court's reversal could lead to a political reprioritization of the issue.

"We'll have to see now what's going to happen. This could be a double-edged sword," Reyes said. "In Puerto Rico, for the people that before didn't have abortion as an important point in their lives, they never thought much of it. Now they're starting to take a position."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maya Rosenberg
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