The Power of One Woman’s Story

Andrea Lynch

Andrea Lynch honors Marta Solay, who shared her compelling story with Colombia's Supreme Court in order to help legalize abortion in cases where a woman's health or life is in danger.

Sometimes the best response to a bad policy is a good story. Good stories inspire our natural empathetic faculties. They dispel myths, stereotypes, and misinformation. They remind us that when we are stating our positions on political issues, what we are really talking about is people's lives, and the degree to which we feel that our views should be allowed to determine other people's decisions. In short, good stories put us face to face with our collective humanity, and force us to clarify how far we will go to defend a position that we know can cause people harm.

I recently read an incredibly moving story that was told during an event called "The Story of My Body," co-sponsored by the International Women's Health Coalition (where I used to work) and Glamour Magazine on International Women's Day this year. At the event, four female performers told the stories of four women from around the world: Emilia from Nigeria, Gungor from Turkey, Anita from India, and Marta from Colombia. Each story focused on a particular way in which women are prevented from knowing, owning, controlling, or deciding about their own bodies—simply because they are women. All four women's stories were powerful, but for me, Marta's stood out.

In 2005 Marta was diagnosed with cervical cancer and simultaneously informed that she was three weeks pregnant—despite the fact that her doctor had supposedly sterilized her after the birth of her third child. Continuing the pregnancy would put her life in danger, but at the time, abortion was illegal under any circumstances in Colombia, and she could not find a doctor who would agree to perform a safe abortion. Marta was too scared to seek an illegal abortion—it would mean putting her life in danger, as well as risking imprisonment, and both of those outcomes would have left her three daughters motherless. So she continued the pregnancy—scared, depressed, and unwell. Her daughters' father left her. She gave birth to a daughter, Daniela, at seven months. A few days later, she started chemotherapy.

Marta's story doesn't end well: earlier this month, she lost her battle with cervical cancer. But before she died, she was able to make a difference for other women in Colombia. Following her 2006 testimony before Colombia's Supreme Court, the judges voted 5-3 to legalize abortion in cases where a woman's health or life was in danger, or where the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. Their landmark decision put an unprecedented emphasis on women's human rights.

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Marta's story is required reading for the 52 members of the Nicaraguan National Assembly who voted unanimously to ban abortion under any circumstances in Nicaragua—including in cases where a pregnant woman's life is in danger—back in October 2006. It's required reading for ex-Nicaraguan president Enrique Bolaños, who signed the ban into law in November 2006, and current Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who continues to support it, despite the fact that the ban has already caused the deaths of several pregnant women (including these two). It's required reading for politicians across Latin America who refuse to stand up for women's right to life even though millions of women throughout the region—where abortion is largely illegal—seek illegal, clandestine abortions every single year. It's required reading for the Pope, and for Cardinal Renato Martino of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who instructed Catholic individuals and organizations to withdraw their support for Amnesty International this week because Amnesty has recently taken an institutional position in support of women's right to abortion in cases of life- and health-threatening pregnancies, or in cases where women women's pregnancies are a result of sexual violence or incest.

Cardinal Martino condemned Amnesty's decision (which they have stood by) based on the claim that "the Church teaches that the murder of a human being can never be justified." But here's the thing: if a "fetus" now counts as a "human being," then I think it's safe to say that "denying a woman who is dying of cancer access to the only operation that could save her life" (as well as "letting a pregnant woman who is having a miscarriage die on the operating table") count as "murder." And if Marta's story doesn't inspire a moral dilemma amongst those who oppose abortion under any circumstances, then I think we can be fairly sure that "respect for human life" is not, in fact, on their agenda.

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Colombia, Nicaragua

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