Puerto Rico After ‘Roe’
This reporting was made possible by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation, part of their Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice in the Americas initiative, which funds reporting on issues that impact people’s daily lives in the region, including reproductive rights and health.
The second in this two-part series will discuss the various challenges facing abortion clinics in Puerto Rico, the feminist and pro-abortion groups fighting to defend them, and the immediate future for abortion rights in the archipelago.
SAN JUAN — It’s early morning, and Dr. Yari Vale is running late. Her son forgot his lunch, so she rushed to drop it off at school before making it back in time for our meeting.
Ringing the doorbell of the Darlington Medical Associates clinic —where there is a security system in place and a security guard protecting the facility— Dr. Vale pushes the door open. She says good morning to the waiting patients and the receptionist sitting behind a glass booth festooned with Christmas decorations.
I watch as Dr. Vale walks in and notice something peculiar in her gait, a heaviness weighing down her small frame. Then it hits me—she is wearing a bulletproof vest underneath her blue scrubs.
We are not in a conflict zone, but Dr. Vale is in the middle of a different kind of war. She is an obstetrician-gynecologist and abortion clinic administrator in Puerto Rico, working after the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June of last year.
The Dobbs v. Jackson decision eviscerated Roe and pushed back women’s rights in the United States almost 50 years. In Puerto Rico, it empowered conservative politicians and pro-life religious groups —following the roadmap of the U.S. anti-abortion lobby— to escalate their campaign and weaponize judicial power to restrict reproductive rights on the island.
In the six months since Roe was overturned, 24 U.S. states have banned abortion or are expected to do so. This is not the case with Puerto Rico, a U.S. colony since 1898, where abortion is a constitutional right with no term limits and is protected by the right to intimacy enshrined in the island’s constitution.
Abortion is legal in Puerto Rico if a physician performs one to protect the health of a pregnant woman, which also includes her mental and emotional well-being.
Even before Roe became law in 1973, Puerto Rico was an abortion haven for those wealthy enough to travel to the island from other Caribbean nations, the United States, or Europe. And yet, today, Puerto Rico has lower abortion rates than other countries with non-restrictive laws.
For a breakdown of exactly why the Puerto Rican constitution has made abortion laws on the island some of the most liberal in the hemisphere, I sat down with Dr. Yanira Reyes, dean of academic affairs in the law school at the Universidad Interamericana in the capital city San Juan. Dr. Reyes is also the co-founder of the women’s nonprofit Inter-Mujeres Puerto Rico.
“Puerto Rico has its own constitution and, as it happens with the states and the federal government, the United States Constitution, the federal constitution, is superior in terms of hierarchy than the constitutions of the states, and that is also the case with Puerto Rico,” Reyes said. “But, in Puerto Rico, the (island’s) constitution was approved with the condition that, at minimum, the same rights that the federal constitution protects would be established, but allowing the establishment also of additional rights.”
Roe v. Wade was based on an interpretation by the court that found a right to intimacy contained in other amendments of the U.S. Constitution, particularly under the Due Process clause. Still, the right to intimacy is not written into the federal constitution.
Here, again, the situation is different in Puerto Rico, where the island’s constitution contains an express provision recognizing the right to intimacy and dignity. Puerto Rican courts have upheld the interpretation that the clause of the right to intimacy does not correspond to the federal constitution. (One case in point is Pueblo v. Duarte.)
“It is independent, it is autochthonous, and in fact, the foundation of that provision resides in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Reyes explained.
With the Dobbs ruling, abortion, which wasn’t a weighty issue on Puerto Rico’s legislative agenda until four years ago, has now become a significant point of contention and opened spaces for conservative and pro-life religious groups. What should be a health issue on an island where women account for more than 50 percent of the population has turned political.
It is symptomatic of the redrawing of the island’s politics, dominated until recently by a two-party system —the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) and the Popular Democratic Party (PPD)— and the colonial status question.
Puerto Rico has gone through a lot in the past decade: $70 billion debt; a federally imposed fiscal control board; cuts to education, pensions, and health services; the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and María; earthquakes; government corruption; a pandemic; and rampant gentrification.
Fed up, Boricuas have turned to new parties founded in 2019 and championing social issues, such as Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (MVC) with its anti-colonial platform, and Proyecto Dignidad, a Christian-led party that promises to “respect life.”
In the 2020 elections, the MVC, the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueno (PIP), and Proyecto Dignidad eroded the PNP’s and PPD’s voter bases. PNP Gov. Pedro Pierluisi won the 2020 election with less than 33 percent in results that showed a more liberal tendency, especially among younger Boricuas.
It is important to note that the MVC and PIP got more votes in the Senate and House elections than Proyecto Dignidad. Contrary to the image that is presented of Puerto Rico becoming more conservative, the results in 2020 sent a message to politicians that Boricuas are more open to liberal ideas.
Yet, on the island, the influence of the religious sector is considerable, and the abortion issue is their clarion call. Proyecto Dignidad, loud in the media, is not in the majority but has hung its campaign on the abortion issue.
Puerto Rico is primarily a Roman Catholic island, and abortion generates dramatically polarizing views. A 2017 survey by Pew Research found that about three-quarters of people in Puerto Rico, mainly outside the San Juan metropolitan area, oppose abortion in most cases. However, recent polls show that these attitudes might be changing.
“These people are very well organized and have always had a profound political impact,” Reyes said. “The PNP and PPD right-wing politicians care a lot about the opinion of the religious sectors because they move many people, a lot of votes.”
“But, here is where the colonial issue comes in,” she continued. “Because these people (anti-abortion lobbyists) are proposing that as the United States eliminates on a federal level the right to an abortion as a fundamental right, that has to apply directly to Puerto Rico. And that is not right.”
This is not the first time that the archipelago’s colonial status has been used to impose restrictions on reproductive freedom in Puerto Rico. Beginning in the 1930s, Boricua women were sterilized, used as guinea pigs for the birth control pill, and had their tubes tied without their consent.
Sen. Joanne Rodríguez Veve, a canonist lawyer and the poster woman for the new populist religious right —and Proyecto Dignidad’s sole member of the Senate— is one of the key players in the abortion fight and is spearheading the push in the legislature.
“The repeal of Roe v. Wade was a game changer for the issue of abortion in Puerto Rico,” Rodríguez Veve said when we met to discuss the issue. “Why? Because, historically, Puerto Rican politicians have shielded themselves with the decision of Roe v. Wade and its sequels, including Planned Parenthood v. Casey, to take or not to take a stance on abortion and not to allow any legislation dealing with the issue to proceed.”
“Once Roe v. Wade was overturned, then the excuse to do nothing disappears, and it is abundantly clear that it is up to each state and each jurisdiction —and us as a territory— to regulate abortion, according to our will,” she said.
“That changes the Puerto Rican political scenario concerning the abortion debate. People now know that no federal jurisprudence limits what we can and can’t do. That is to say, we have an open field.”
The push to open debate on abortion began in 2019 when the Puerto Rico House of Representatives voted to pass Senate bill PS950, a measure requiring pregnant people under 18 to get their parents’ or legal guardians’ consent before getting abortion care. The bill also would have placed onerous regulations on clinics. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (PNP) vetoed the bill.
Five days before the reversal of Roe, when it was clear in which direction the winds were blowing, the Puerto Rican Senate passed a bill banning abortion after 22 weeks of gestation, or when a physician decides that a fetus is viable. The only exception is if the woman’s life is in danger.
Rodríguez Veve sponsored bill PS693, which she considered a “consensus bill,” stating that a woman’s right to privacy is not absolute. The bill was also sponsored by the president of Puerto Rico’s Senate and the PPD, José Luis Dalmau—who described an abortion after 22 weeks as “murder.”
The day after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, Projecto Dignidad’s Rep. Lisie Burgos Muñiz introduced a bill punishing “the crime of abortion” with 99 years imprisonment. The bill PC1407 was withdrawn the next day after an outcry over its draconian nature. Still, it illustrated how far the anti-abortionists had been encouraged.
In anticipation of the Dobbs ruling, four pieces of legislation —plus PS693— were put before the House of Representatives: PC1403, a bill that would codify the right to abortion in the Puerto Rico Constitution; PC1084, which would prohibit abortion from the first fetal heartbeat; PC715, which would define as a double homicide the violent death of a pregnant person; and PC1410, which would call a referendum on the issue of abortion.
These four measures were defeated at the end of the legislative session late last year, with feminist and pro-abortion organizations on the island lobbying to stop PC1084, PC715, and PC1410. In the case of PC1403, there is a sister bill that will appear before the Senate this year.
The speaker of the House, Rep. Rafael “Tatito” Hernández (PPD), who sides with the U.S. Democratic Party and saw how the abortion issue was used in the runup to last year’s midterm elections, also worked to defeat the measures by upholding the Puerto Rican constitution.
“We listened to all sectors, and the end result of this effort honors the constitutional right to human dignity and privacy, as provided in our Magna Carta,” he said.
Rodríguez Veve called the move “barbaric” and said “the fight continues. 2023 is waiting for us!”
Yet, in our conversation, she admitted that it would be a hard road and that the way forward was to compromise.
“That is why I am telling you that, in this process, I evaluate or try to evaluate objectively the political temperature,” she said. “And even, with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, it’s clear to me that, in Puerto Rico, for example, there isn’t the political will to prohibit abortion from conception.”
“Obviously, my personal position is that I believe in human protection since conception, but I navigate in a political field, and one thing is the ideal, and another thing is the possible,” she said.
The focus will now be on passing piecemeal legislation that, like water torture, will chip away at abortion rights and access to abortion, specifically targeting clinics.
Anti-abortion activists and organizations have been vocal in soliciting the closure or restriction of abortion clinics in Puerto Rico, creating misinformation campaigns that claim abortion is now illegal in Puerto Rico following the last year’s revocation of Roe v. Wade.