“As Common as Daily Bread”: The Politics of Unwanted Pregnancy and Abortion in Bolivia’s Military Era, 1964–82

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 9:10 AM
Nassau Suite A (New York Hilton)
Natalie (Tasha) Kimball, College of Staten Island, City University of New York
One medical doctor I interviewed in 2009 told me that, while working as a resident in La Paz’s public Women’s Hospital in the mid-1970s, cases of women seeking treatment for complications following abortion were “as common as daily bread.” During Bolivia’s 18-year period of military rule, women seeking to limit their pregnancies were caught in a difficult dilemma. After allegations that the U.S. had attempted to limit Bolivia’s indigenous populations for eugenic reasons, military leaders and activists alike adopted stringent pro-natalist positions. This culminated in formal restrictions on the sale of contraceptive methods, while abortion in the country continued to be criminalized under most circumstances. Despite this, evidence shows that women went to considerable lengths to control their reproductive lives, with estimates from the 1970s placing Bolivia’s abortion rate among the region’s highest.

Drawing on medical records and oral interviews, this paper traces the history of unwanted pregnancy and induced abortion during Bolivia’s military era. Medical records reveal the frequency and severity of medical complications following abortion. Interviews with women; doctors and other medical personnel; government officials; police officers, and activists reveal the persistence of women’s demand for abortion, as well as a deep-seated social stigma surrounding the procedure. The paper demonstrates women’s tenacity in determining the contours of their reproductive lives, despite restrictive policies on and social attitudes toward abortion. This tenacity, in combination with broader trends, would contribute to changing the sociopolitical context of unwanted pregnancy and abortion in the 1980s and 1990s, following the return to democracy.

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