SAN JUAN – Powerful lawmakers in Puerto Rico are joining conservatives in states across the U.S. mainland in attempting to set tighter restrictions on abortions, alarming feminist groups and others on the island.
A recently introduced bill would prohibit abortions starting at 22 weeks, or when a doctor determines that a fetus is viable, with the sole exception being if a woman’s life is in danger. That is roughly in line with most U.S. state laws, though more limiting than Puerto Rico's current status, which sets no term limit.
The move comes at a time when a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has many speculating that it may reverse or weaken the constitutional right to abortion recognized under the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.
A Puerto Rico Senate committee approved the bill last week in a 9-3 vote despite objections from the island’s health and justice departments. The health secretary said the measure interferes with the patient-doctor relationship and doesn't take into account circumstances that affect women's health and access to abortion services. The justice secretary objected to the bill's call for a government registry of those who terminate pregnancies and the reasons behind it, which he said could endanger patients' right to privacy.
Feminist groups and others also complained of a lack of public hearings before the bill was approved.
Some were further angered when José Luis Dalmau, president of Puerto Rico’s Senate and the opposition Popular Democratic Party, said last week that those who abort a viable fetus are “murderers.”
His speech brought criticism from former governors of his own party, which has long been considered more liberal than the New Progressive Party of Gov. Pedro Pierluisi.
While many polls show majority support for abortion rights in many or most cases on the U.S. mainland, there are signs the opposite is true in Puerto Rico: Recent polls are scarce, but a 2017 survey by Pew Research found that about three quarters of people in Puerto Rico opposed abortion in all or most cases — a far higher percentage than among Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland.
Smaller, more recent surveys by local media organizations suggest public opinion hasn’t swayed much. And key politicians from Puerto Rico’s two main parties seem to see advantages in appealing to anti-abortion beliefs.
Raúl Cotto-Sierra, a political philosophy professor at the University of Puerto Rico, said both the Popular Democratic Party and the New Progressive Party are trying to regain conservative supporters they lost in the recent election to newer parties such as Project Dignity, which ran on a Christian platform and vowed to implement abortion restrictions.
Sen. Joanne Rodríguez Veve, a member of that party, is one of the authors of the current abortion bill. Joining her are Dalmau and Sen. Thomas Rivera Schatz, a former Senate president who is a member of the New Progressive Party.
If Puerto Rico lawmakers approve the bill, they would join a growing trend of U.S. states restricting abortions.
Forty-four U.S. states have imposed a threshold on abortions — many at fetal viability or in a range of 20 to 24 weeks. And last year, 19 states enacted more than 100 abortion restrictions, the highest total in any year since the Roe v. Wade ruling, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based research organization that supports abortion rights. The most recent occurred Tuesday, when the Republican-controlled House of Oklahoma approved a bill that makes performing an abortion in most circumstances a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Puerto Rico’s Senate had been expected to vote Monday on the bill, but instead kicked it back to the Committee on Life and Family Affairs following criticism about the lack of public hearings. Rodríguez, one of the senators who authored the bill, oversees that committee.
“This is a real threat that we’re facing,” said attorney Amárilis Pagán, executive director of Mother Project, a nonprofit group focused on helping women. “We have to align forces so we can fight this.”
The committee is expected to hold public hearings this month and send it to the Senate for a vote. If it passes, it would go to the House of Representatives.
Sens. Dalmau, Rivera and Rodríguez released a joint statement implying they don't expect hearings to sway positions: “Some believe or imply that holding public hearings would change the minds of those who favor or those who oppose the measure. Time will tell.”
Their supporters include the activist group Women for Puerto Rico, which said the bill could help boost the island’s dwindling birth rate and argued that fetuses at 23 weeks have survived.
The territory of 3.2 million people recorded a total of more than 3,700 abortions in 2020, a drop from the 4,200 reported in 2018, according to the latest government statistics. Health officials say about 99% of abortions in Puerto Rico are done before 22 weeks.
Gov. Pedro Pierluisi has not joined the debate, saying only he favors public hearings “so that we can obtain input from all parties, including medical criteria. We must be careful in this matter, and it must depend on the greatest amount of analysis possible.”