Doctors in Peru Become Strong Champions of Safe and Legal Abortion

When Peruvians return to the polls on June 5 to elect their next president, they will choose between Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the jailed former president, and former Finance Minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. While neither candidate is a friend to the women’s movement, Fujimori is particularly dangerous. Just last week she announced that she would never legalize same sex unions or abortion, even in the case of rape.

In Peru—as in other parts of the world—women’s health, and in particular their access to safe and legal abortion, falls victim to the whims of newly elected officials. Despite the fact that abortion to save the life or health of a woman, commonly called therapeutic abortion, has been legal in Peru since 1924, the majority of Peruvian women are unable to access it. However, a growing group of public sector doctors, lawyers, midwives, and psychiatrists in Peru called Red Peruana de Apoyo al Acceso al Aborto Seguro (RED PAAS) or “Peruvian Network to Support Access to Safe and Legal Abortion” is working to change this.

Last summer, the Ministry of Health in Peru finally released protocols for legal abortion services. The protocols allow for abortion up to 22 weeks of gestation to protect a woman’s health. RED PAAS, an initiative supported by IWHC partner Promsex, has taken implementing this into its own hands, ensuring that even if a more conservative government takes over in Peru, legal abortion for women will not be brought to a screeching halt. On a recent trip to Lima, I met a few of the doctors who are part of the network to learn what motivated them to become activists for safe and legal abortion.

Dr. Luis Távara (pictured, left), an internationally recognized obstetrician and gynecologist and former president of the Peruvian Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology, is one of the founding members. He highlighted how important the group is in the current political climate, given the likely shift to the right in the upcoming elections. “The network works within the public sector and supports the Ministry, but it’s also protective if the government changes,” he said. Távara has seen the group grow over the last few years as prestigious gynecologists from across the country have joined.

Dr. Enrique Guevara Ríos (pictured, right), Director of the Maternal Perinatal Institute, noted that some “prestigious” doctors are already providing therapeutic abortion, and others may soon start. “Some doctors don’t want to get involved, but if they see that it’s being done…see the statistics…they will follow.” He’s optimistic that the network will continue to expand.

For some of the doctors, the issue hits close to home. Dr. Edgardo Vásquez Pérez, Director of the Hospital San Bartolomé and founding member of the network, has three daughters and cites his concerns for them as motivating his work. Originally from Cajamarca, a conservative region in the northern part of the country, Pérez was apprehensive about raising daughters in a “machista” environment. He shared a traditional quote that he heard often growing up: “Women are put on this earth to suffer.”

He’s been trying to fight this notion, and in order to sleep soundly at night, he had to make sure his daughters knew their rights and could demand them. He sees his participation in REDPAAS as his contribution to creating an environment where they can do this. He told me he’s been practicing for 30 years and has seen so much injustice. The well-known case of K.L., the 17-year-old Peruvian girl who was forced to carry an anencephalic fetus to term, particularly moved him. “Why do women have to go through this?” he asked. “Why does the system force them to risk their lives against their will? And what gives doctors the right to put their beliefs and values over those of the women?”

Several of the doctors I met spoke of the anguish women endure. Dr. Isoé Ramirez, Head of Obstetrics at the Hospital Juan Pablo II of Villa el Salvador, a very poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Lima, told me he sees this suffering on a daily basis. “Women don’t know their rights [to abortion] and so many doctors don’t help them. They give them a run around…send them all over the place,” he said.

He and other members of the network are tackling this head-on. “We are trying to make doctors understand that it’s about saving lives. You don’t have to personally agree with [abortion], but if somebody has the right to a service, you have to at least give a referral.” He went on to explain that the power of RED PAAS is that it’s a community, and when doctors join, they don’t feel so rejected or stigmatized for providing a legal service. It also gives doctors a chance to expand their knowledge and learn since the network is made up of lawyers, psychiatrists, and other advocates.

When asked about next steps for the network, Dr. Isoé said “We have to grow. It’s the only way to ensure the law has meaning.”

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