"I had an abortion and I'm at peace": Taking women's health to the streets in Puerto Rico
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"I had an abortion and I'm at peace": Taking women's health to the streets in Puerto Rico

In September 2012, a curious collection of posters began popping up on the walls of buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Alongside stencil art calling for the liberation of political prisoner Oscar López Rivera and large-scale aerosoled murals appeared wheatpasted posters of five women, each smiling, beside the tagline: “Yo aborté y estoy en paz” (“I had an abortion and I’m at peace”).

Around the world, street art has long been used as a tool for communicating discontent with social policies, but rarely do individual faces and names accompany messages of outrage and calls to action. In fact, it is the anonymity of street art that often makes it such an appealing medium for critical and dissenting messages. Some messages, though, can’t possibly be conveyed — at least not effectively — unless the messenger attaches her name to the message.

“They want to keep us quiet,” says Kathia Castillo Brizard, one of the five women who collaborated with the Puerto Rican feminist health collective Taller Salud to put a face and a name — literally — to the issue of abortion on the island. Castillo says she and her compañeras “came out of the closet” in order to “challenge the discourse of hate” that characterizes conversations about abortion in Puerto Rico.

“For me,” she says, “putting my face on a poster was more than an act of courage; it was an act of conscience, of commitment, of human rights, of solidarity. It was an act of love.”

Turning women into criminals

The “Yo aborté y estoy en paz” campaign was conceptualized by Michel Collado Toro and Tania Rosado of Taller Salud as part of the collective’s participation in the Day of Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean, held each year on September 28. In 2012, the day was observed for the first time on an international scale, and in Puerto Rico, it also marked a moment of particular urgency around the issue of abortion.

“The New Penal Code approved on the island in 2012 [made provisions for] punishment by means of imprisonment — even more severe than what existed previously — for women who have abortions,” explains Collado.

The penal code’s treatment of abortion as a crime punishable by jail time exposes the incredibly complex relationship between the U.S. mainland and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and reveals how ambivalent and intrusive the colonial status of the island can be.

Read more: Puerto Rico’s battle to escape “second-class citizenship”

“Abortion is technically legal in Puerto Rico since 1973, according to the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade,” Collado continues, referring to the U.S. court decision that ruled abortions were legal under the Constitution. “But in practical terms, the majority of the population doesn’t know about the legality of and access to this surgical intervention.”

The severity of the New Penal Code, coupled with the general lack of knowledge and the influence of conservative religious beliefs, has effectively convinced providers not to make abortion accessible and has scared women who might need one away from demanding a legal procedure, Collado explains, even though federal law trumps commonwealth law.

“We know of cases where women have had clandestine abortions because they were unaware abortion is legal on the island or because a lack of access to services,” Collado says. “This puts women’s health at risk.”

The goal of the “Yo aborté” campaign, then, was to make it more widely known that abortion is legal in Puerto Rico. But a second goal — and one that was perhaps even more important — was to begin breaking the silence about a topic that remains profoundly taboo in Puerto Rico, as it does in much of Latin America.

yo aborte

One of the “Yo aborté” posters, featuring different Puerto Rican women and their personal experiences. Photo: Francisco Collazo

Winning the battle, not the war

Taller Salud’s “Yo aborté” campaign was a response to pro-life messaging that paints with a single brush those women who choose to terminate their pregnancies.

“Those of us who work with women [in health counseling clinics] know there’s not one single profile of a woman who chooses to have an abortion,” Collado says. “We chose five women with five different stories for the campaign.”

The women in the campaign each had an abortion for a different reason: one because her health was at risk, another because she was pursuing a career and felt that the timing of her pregnancy just wasn’t right, while a third had been raped. The only things they had in common were that they were women, who lived in Puerto Rico, who decided to have an abortion and who felt at peace with their decision to do so.

Perhaps to their surprise, their participation in the “Yo aborté” campaign resulted in profound moments of connection with other women who saw the posters and who, as a result, felt free to either seek their help or to share their own experiences, both online or in person.

Tanagra Melgarejo, a social worker and one of the five women featured in the campaign, says that the posters have been a springboard into deep conversations with other women, including her own clients.

While the campaign did provoke detractors, including online commenters who openly lamented the decisions to abort and others who moralized or shared anecdotes of women they know who aborted and were not at peace, the staff of Taller Salud say the campaign has been a success. Although it is unknown whether access to legal abortions has improved or stigma has decreased since the campaign began, Collado says Taller Salud continues its efforts to educate Puerto Ricans about their legal rights and about the many faces and facets of people affected by abortion.

This September 28, Taller Salud concentrated most of its efforts online, choosing to share information and resources about the basic process of abortion, how much it costs on the island, and places where women can safely terminate their pregnancies. The stories of other women on the island who have had abortions are featured as well. The Taller Salud blog also includes a self-care questionnaire for women trying to decide whether to have an abortion.

“It’s definitely a battle won,” says Castillo about the “Yo aborté” campaign, as well as her own participation in it. “But we’re very aware that the war still isn’t won. The fight continues and many more women will join us for it.”