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Cuban police want to force a political prisoner to have an abortion

Is abortion a choice or a political issue in Cuba? The current Cuban Penal Code assumes it as a crime when it is carried out without the consent of the mother

Lisdany Rodríguez
Lisdany Rodríguez was imprisoned for protesting against the Cuban government.Cortesía

Lisdany Rodríguez is not going to have an abortion. It is the decision she made from her cell at the Guajamal women’s prison, and that her husband supports from his detention at the El Yabú men’s prison. If everything goes well, and the Cuban political police do not make Lisdany abort the fetus, in nine months a baby will be born who will not live with its parents. They will be serving their sentences for demonstrating against the government.

When the police took Lisdany into custody after the protests on July 11, 2021, her partner, Luis Ernesto Jiménez, had been in prison for a few months for running a black market business. A few days after their last conjugal visit, Lisdany felt a little discomfort in her body and stopped having her period. The first pregnancy test was positive. An ultrasound test confirmed that she was seven weeks and five days pregnant.

“I was surprised,” Lisdany, 25, said with her mother Bárbara Isaac Rojas, who visited her in Guajamal on Wednesday, January 31. “I really didn’t expect it. I have been trying for many years and have never succeeded. And a child is a blessing from God, no matter the circumstances.”

The prison uniform barely fits. Lisdany is uncomfortable and has been vomiting a lot. She got her first cravings. Sometimes she wants to eat ice cream, other times she wants to eat oranges, and Bárbara satisfies her daughter’s cravings as best she can. Lisdany is happy. Her biggest concern right now is that state security agents are constantly trying to persuade her to have an abortion, as has been reported since her first examination. If she undergoes the procedure, she will have been forced into an abortion as a direct result of politics.

The day they did the ultrasound, Dr. Frank — the prison doctor — began the process for Lisdany to have an abortion. It was as if he had assumed from the beginning that it was a duty, just one more order to follow. “He started filling out papers to do tests and remove the fetus without involving her,” says Bárbara. “But she didn’t want to. She was dying to get pregnant. She has been with her boyfriend for nine years and had never gotten pregnant.”

Then they sent Lisdany to a psychologist, convinced that no one would want to give birth in a prison without medicine or food. “He told me not to have it now, that I had eight years to serve and that there are no facilities [for babies and children],” says the young woman.

Of the 218 women who were detained during the 2021 protests in several Cuban provinces, Lisdany and her twin sister, Lidiany Rodríguez, are among those still in prison. Both were sentenced to eight years for the crimes of public disorder, disobedience, and assault. If she carries her pregnancy to term, Lisdany would not be the first political prisoner from the massive protests in Cuba to give birth in custody.

Lucas was born a little over a year ago. His mother, Lázara Karenia González, became pregnant after a conjugal visit and was then allowed to spend the first year of the child’s life under house arrest. Now the authorities want her to return to prison to finish her sentence of three years and six months for the same crimes of public disorder, disobedience, and assault, after she took part in the protests in Cárdenas, Matanzas province. “She is desperate,” says her sister Kirenia Suárez. “She is afraid of having to leave the baby at such a crucial age in his life. It’s traumatic.” Her lawyer presented a request for extra-criminal license that was denied, and now they have filed a petition. Lucas will remain in the care of his grandmother when Lázara returns to prison.

If Lisdany gives birth at the end of this year, the baby will spend a brief period of time in prison, and then Bárbara will be in charge of taking care of him, as she has had to take care of Lidiany’s daughter for the past three years. Nothing so far has convinced Lisdany to abort. Neither the lack of food for pregnant women in prison, nor the meager supply of medications to relieve their nausea, nor the threats from the political police. If she has an abortion due to pressure from Cuban agents, they will have failed to comply with the Cuban law that says that it is women who have autonomy over their bodies.

“All the responsibility cannot fall on women”

The current Cuban Penal Code considers an abortion that is performed without the consent of the mother as a crime. Cuban women born after 1959 did so in a country where the right to abortion was not in dispute. Two years after the triumph of the Revolution, abortion was decriminalized, and Cuba became the first country in Latin America to do so. In 1965, the legal basis that recognized it as a right was created. Today, abortion is allowed in the institutions of the Ministry of Public Health by voluntary decision up to 12 weeks of gestational age, and up to 26 weeks due to fetal malformations incompatible with life.

Although abortion in Cuba is institutionalized and recognized as a right, activist Marta María Ramírez warns that it is only a ministerial provision, and not legislation. “It seems enough, but since it is not legislation, it can be changed, reviewed, or annulled by the government, and we know the risk that entails,” she says.

Although it is true that Cuban women have not had to enter the regional debate against banning abortion, and although it is also a reality that the deaths of women who undergo these procedures are minimal thanks to the fact that it is not illegal, the question of abortion in Cuba has also become a double-edged sword: are pregnant women aware of the risk? Who has greater access to abortion?

Dr. Alexis René Girón González, a gynecologist specializing in fetal medicine, says that, in theory, a woman can voluntarily opt for a “menstrual regulation consultation”— as abortion by manual uterine aspiration is called in Cuba. “But if you don’t have an acquaintance or some way to pay someone — and that someone ranges from the secretary to the doctor — you don’t make it to the consultation,” he continues.

In a country whose health system is completely overwhelmed and is suffering a notable loss of medical personnel, abortion services have also become a matter of survival. “Health facilities are poor. The procedures are carried out with old and reused materials, sometimes with very poor sterility,” says Dr. Girón González. “There are no optimal disposable materials, or at least not for ordinary people, and of course, both the doctor and the patient are exposed to a lot of health risks. Added to that is the high rate of normalized obstetric violence in Cuba.”

The most commonly used methods for abortion on the island are manual uterine aspiration, which is usually performed without anesthesia and in the early stages of pregnancy; surgical abortion or curettage, and the use of misoprostol. The Health Statistical Yearbook of the Ministry of Public Health for the year 2020 records that between 1980 and 2020 more than 3.9 million abortions were performed.

One of the criticisms surrounding abortion in Cuba is its practice as a contraceptive due to the lack of resources and adequate sex education beginning in childhood. Today, the lack of condoms in the country and their sale on the black market at increased prices is a reality. Given the lack of protection and the consequent unwanted pregnancy, women often resort to abortion. Official sources indicate that 51,488 abortions were performed in Cuba in 2021.

“Assuming that abortion is a method or means for contraception is disastrous,” says Dr. Girón González. “It is very risky for the patient and the doctor. It should not be a recurring practice, much less a common one. But the country’s health authorities do not give complete information to many patients, and when the information is biased, you cannot make the right choice. There aren’t even condoms in Cuba, so what could we expect from other methods?”

Ramírez says that it is the state that has been failing to guarantee contraceptive methods for years, which is why there are women in Cuba who have had more than three abortions. “All the responsibility cannot fall on the women, on the victims,” he insists. “They have to let us access methods of birth control.”

The National Fertility Survey published in 2022 shows that, between 2009 and 2022, abortions and menstrual regulations in Cuba increased by 14 percentage points. According to the study, Cuban women have an average of 1.14 children, the lowest rate in the region. In recent times, the independent press has even recorded several cases of babies being abandoned in dumpsters or on train lines. Although the government has tried to increase the birth rate in the country due to the increasingly aging population, many of those who could have children are those who do not want to bring a child into a country marked by economic crisis, and who consider emigration as a possibility.

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