This story has been updated to reflect the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court.
Dr. Yari Vale Moreno is hiring an armed security guard to stand outside of her abortion clinic in Río Piedras, a neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday. It will cost $1,500 a month, and she’ll have to foot the bill. The clinic administrator and obstetrician already has cameras and alarms installed at the clinic, but the growing anti-choice movement on the archipelago, felt through threats of violence and growing protests outside of her facility, has her concerned for her patients, her family, and herself.
Like in the United States, where abortion rights are under attack and Roe v. Wade was overturned in the Supreme Court on June 24, violence against abortion providers, activists, and patients is on the rise in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. Leaders in the reproductive justice movement believe that anti-choicers are becoming empowered by the political wins that the anti-abortion movement is gaining in the contiguous U.S., and have become more active and callous in their crusade, especially now that Roe v. Wade is has collapsed and more people are expected to come here for abortions.
“I feel more harassed in the last month than I have in all my years doing this work,” Vale Moreno tells Refinery29 Somos. At this moment, a photo of the abortion provider with the word “Assassin” scrawled over it is circulating on social media. “I closed Facebook. I wear a bulletproof vest. I switch cars when I can. I fear for my kids more than for myself.”
Like in the United States, where abortion rights are under attack, violence against abortion providers, activists, and patients is on the rise in Puerto Rico.
Currently, Puerto Rico has one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world. On the archipelago, pregnant individuals can terminate a pregnancy without restrictions during any stage in their pregnancy — but this right is attacked more and more each day. In 2019, the Puerto Rico House of Representatives voted to pass Proyecto del Senado 950, a measure that would have required pregnant people under the age of 18 to receive consent from their parents or legal guardians before obtaining abortion care. Then-Governor Ricardo Rosselló vetoed the bill.
Since then, the efforts to restrict abortion access has continued. This year alone, Proyecto Dignidad, a far-right, Christian-led political party, has introduced 12 bills aimed at limiting the healthcare procedure. Each of the proposals resemble, almost identically, anti-choice legislation that has recently passed in U.S. states: There are measures that try to ban abortions after 20 weeks, restrict access to minors, and attempt to attribute personhood to a fetus.
“They copy-paste the projects and laws from the States,” Mayra I Díaz Torres, a member of the abortion rights collective Aborto Libre and former program director of Clínica IELLA, a Profamilias clinic that provides abortion care, tells Somos. “But we as a colony need to be clear that the laws that have worked in the U.S., or the laws that take place there, never have been for us. The States never have taken our wellbeing as a priority, so we need to see this as a colonial impact to our wellbeing, again.”
As a colonizer, the United States has long sought to impose restrictions on people's reproductive freedom in Puerto Rico. From the 1930s, when the U.S. legalized eugenics-based sterilization on the archipelago, to the 1960s, Puerto Rican women were used as subjects for birth control research and were sterilized en masse without their informed consent. By the end of the decade, one-third of Puerto Rican women had their tubes tied.
We as a colony need to be clear that the laws that have worked in the U.S., or the laws that take place there, never have been for us. The States never have taken our wellbeing as a priority, so we need to see this as a colonial impact to our wellbeing, again.
Mayra I Díaz Torres
With the overturning of Roe, some fear that, once again, Puerto Rico’s reproductive rights will be impinged on, but the situation is a little more complicated, as it always is in a colony. Now that the Supreme Court has rescinded Roe, states will be able to set their own abortion policies, including limiting or prohibiting abortion completely, without any federal constitutional standards. But unlike many of these states, Puerto Rico has its own laws and supreme court rulings affirming the right to abortion that’ll make it harder for anti-choice legislators to outlaw abortion here. More recently, in 2020, abortion was protected in Puerto Rico’s Civil Code.
“Even though Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, and it’s very sad for me to see what is happening in the States, for Puerto Rico, it's another context because we have local laws that would make this a longer and harder battle,” Díaz Torres says.
Still, the state of abortion rights in the contiguous U.S. does impact Puerto Rico in other insidious ways. Like in the U.S., Puerto Ricans are currently being inundated with lies about reproductive rights and health. Proyecto Dignidad, powered by Sen. Joanne Rodríguez Veve, a young, white, conservative politician and TikTok influencer, has been flooding social media, TV, and radio stations with falsehoods about abortion.
“The most troublesome and most violent attacks are with disinformation,” Díaz Torres continues. “These extreme right groups are showing people a 10-pound fetus and calling it a nine-week embryo. They are saying that a fetus feels pain. They are distracting people from the truth by circulating things that go to their emotions, and that's problematic and dangerous," she adds, noting that the pro-choice movement is responding by sharing science-backed information and calling for better sex education in schools.
I feel like we are at a time when the anti-right movement is more visible, vocal, and violent than before.
Johana Molina Ortiz
The disinformation campaigns have led to mass confusion — most people still don’t even know that abortion is legal in Puerto Rico — and have incited anti-choicers to act as vigilantes. Like Vale Moreno, more abortion providers and reproductive rights defenders are facing threats from an empowered ultra-conservative movement.
Díaz Torres says clinics have had to close some days and reschedule appointments due to aggressive protests. Whenever clinic administrators are aware of upcoming demonstrations, they call on defensores, volunteer escorts from the Aborto Libre collective and doula group Las Mingas, to walk patients from their cars to the clinic.
“I feel like we are at a time when the anti-right movement is more visible, vocal, and violent than before,” Johana Molina Ortiz, an abortion doula with Las Mingas, tells Somos. Multiple days a week, she receives comments and messages on social media that refer to her as a "baby killer" and call on her to be killed. "It's difficult. It makes you feel attacked and intimidated. It makes this work hard.”
The stigma around abortion and the constant threats that providers and activists face has stopped many medical professionals who believe in safe and accessible abortion from opening abortion clinics. As a result, the number of clinics on the archipelago is declining. This year, it dropped from five to four when a provider, in his 90s, needed to retire.
For those outside urban areas, getting support has become even harder: All of Puerto Rico’s abortion clinics are located in the metro area, meaning that people on the west coast, central mountainous area, or on Puerto Rican islands outside the mainland have to travel far distances, sometimes by unreliable ferries, for care.
In reproductive justice spaces throughout Puerto Rico, abortion rights and access are never discussed as a solely, or even primarily, Puerto Rican issue.
For activists and providers, legislation widening abortion access is pivotal — both for Puerto Ricans (about 40% of whom live under the poverty line), and the scores of people from neighboring Caribbean and South American countries where abortion is outlawed or limited. In reproductive justice spaces throughout Puerto Rico, abortion rights and access are never discussed as a solely, or even primarily, Puerto Rican issue. The fight for free, accessible, and safe abortion is also for the people of the Dominican Republic, the British Virgin Islands, Venezuela, and, increasingly, the contiguous U.S.
With the prospective overturning of Roe, abortion providers and activists expect Puerto Rico will become an abortion haven for people in the States, much like it was during the 1960s, a time when so many women there would fly to the archipelago to terminate pregnancies that the service was colloquially called a "San Juan weekend."
Already, Puerto Rican abortion providers have said they are caring for a growing number of people from Texas and Florida. The difference: The U.S.-imported violent anti-choice movement has created a dearth of abortion clinics that will make it harder and riskier for abortion providers to serve the influx of patients — and even more difficult for Puerto Ricans to access this healthcare.
“I want everyone in the world who needs an abortion to have one safely and respectfully,” says Molina Ortiz, whose 16-member collective Las Mingas provides doula support for people before, during, and after abortions. “And that is why we in Puerto Rico can’t just talk about abortions for us; we have to talk about all of the Caribbean and all the places where people can’t have one.”