Dr. Carmen Angélica Valenzuela, a pediatrician, is senior program officer in the International Department at Catholics for a Free Choice and a commissioner of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women & Children.
Amnesty International has come under fire from the Catholic hierarchy in the U.S. and the U.K. as it considers whether to include access to abortion in the list of rights that it supports. Many other organizations and individuals have long made the case that access to safe abortion services is a basic human right, one that saves thousands of women's lives and protects the health of many, many more. While the U.S., Canada and New Zealand have voted in favor, members in other nations are in the process of consulting and voting on the proposal. While the final decision won't be made until the end of next year, this debate is long overdue.
On February 10, 1990-the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa-I was kidnapped by the Guatemalan government's notorious G-2 intelligence unit. For eight days, I was bound, beaten and physically and psychologically tortured in an attempt to gain information about the guerilla movement that I simply did not have. Like many of my medical colleagues, I had supported the opposition in Guatemala, providing medical supplies and emergency assistance to those who opposed the regime. I am proud to this day of the work we did.
I was one of the few who survived my incarceration. Most were executed and then dumped in public places as a warning to others. But, due to an incredible campaign on my behalf, locally and internationally, I somehow was released; not unharmed, but alive. The tipping point for the security forces may have been a threatened national strike by the medical profession, but Amnesty International's immediate response also meant that the case was attracting international attention.
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After I fled the country, I lived in New York and Washington, D.C. and became closely involved in working with refugees-especially on the reproductive health needs of women fleeing war, torture and poverty.
At the time I left, Guatemala was coming towards the end of the first democratically elected government. While some things had got better, many had stayed the same, and the vicious clampdown on all opposition continued. In my work as a pediatrician, I was in close contact with the results of immense government funding for an internal war, and little if any for the services required to run a small impoverished country. The lack of maternal health services lead to many deaths in childbirth, and many malnourished and sick children. During the 1980s, Guatemala had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere, a proportion of which was related to the fact that abortion was illegal.
Through my work with the poor in Guatemala, it became increasingly apparent to me that all human rights advocates must, as a matter of high concern, support all women in their decisions whether or not to become or remain pregnant. In Guatemala, the subject of abortion rarely came up. It was and still is practiced mostly clandestinely, and I, like all health professionals, saw at first hand the after-effects of illegal abortion. No woman should be forced to go to such lengths to end a pregnancy that she cannot continue.
Reproductive rights in general and the right to end a pregnancy through abortion must become a basic part of the human rights canon. As a medical professional, a women's rights activist and somebody who has experienced first hand the positive impact that human-rights campaigners can have, I can clearly see the direct connection between Amnesty International's existing campaigns and the discussion about including abortion rights in future campaigns. Whenever I tell my story to AI supporters, I am always deeply moved by their satisfaction and fulfillment when they say: "Wow! You survived. I am so happy to know that my continuous support to Amnesty was worth someone's life!" I believe their support now on the cause of abortion could save thousands of lives.
On the day I write this, I read that Amnesty International again has issued an alert about human rights abuses in my home country. On this day too, and every day, women who cannot gain access to safe abortion services are injured, made seriously ill, and die as a result of their inability to access a basic human right. Amnesty's decision to move from its current neutral position on abortion to one that supports women's rights to access abortion is one that women around the world who cannot easily access such services will applaud.