Cuba expands women’s reproductive rights

By ANN MONTAGUE

Abortion has been legal in Cuba since the victory of the Cuban revolution in 1959 and was codified into law as a women’s “sovereign right” in 1968.

Vilma Espin, a feminist and revolutionary fighter, was made the head of the new Federation of Cuban Women and later created the National Center For Sex Education, now headed by her daughter Mariela Castro Espin. As a result of Espin’s role in the revolution and heading an organization of over three million Cuban women, women’s reproductive rights were always on the agenda. Not only was abortion legalized; all women have access to free contraception.

Cuba is now launching a new campaign to address the low birth rate, which is due to the choices Cuban women have been making for decades.

Most women in Cuba today only have only one child. Luis Ernesto Formoso, director of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital in Havana, explains it this way: “In health matters we behave like the developed world, and now women only start to think about having children once they’re established in their careers. For instance, my grandmother had 16 children; my mother, four; and I have only one child.”

The assistant director of the hospital’s nursing unit, Caridad Fuentes, points out that these changes are in a country where, “we have a public health system that provides free medical care for all women throughout pregnancy and childbirth. The number of teenage pregnancies has also been cut thanks to the ‘arsenal of information’ that teenagers receive and their use of safe birth-control methods. And our infant mortality rate is lower than the United States.”

In most countries around the world women are fighting for reproductive rights, which means the right to abortion and access to birth control. In Cuba they are increasing services for women who want to have children but have been unable due to infertility.

Cuba’s Council Of Ministers announced recently that they have increased fully paid maternity and paternity leave to one year. There are also plans to expand day-care facilities, as 53% of mothers with children four or younger work.

The big announcement was that Cuba would be opening special centers for infertile couples in each of the country’s 168 municipalities. The government says it treated 3000 couples for infertility in 2010, and more than doubled that number in the following three years. The country has also tripled the number of special reproductive technology centers, to three, and there have been 500 births by artificial insemination. They are also increasing the special maternity units where women with high-risk pregnancies can stay full-time.

Dr. Bartolome Arce, chief of Endocrinology and Assisted Reproduction Services, pointed out that the cost of invitro fertilization in most other countries—for example, the United States—is more than $10,000.

While there are increased options for women who want to have more children, Cuban women who choose not to have children will still have that option. Cuba’s National Office of Information and Statistics reports that 80% of the population use contraception.

Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS