CubaBrief: Forced abortion in Cuba. How Communist Cuba tramples on the sexual and reproductive rights of women prisoners

Lisdany Rodríguez was arrested on July 17, 2021 for participating in the 11J protests, and is now being denied food and medical care in reprisal for not undergoing a forced abortion. | Barbara Isaac

In Romania, the communist regime decided that increased fertility was the key to economic growth and outlawed birth control, abortion, and began policing women to “encourage” them to have more babies with the passage of Decree 770 in 1966. The last communist leader of Romania, Nicolae Ceauşescu, announced, “The fetus is the property of the entire society … Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity.” Women had a duty to get pregnant for the state. The experience in Romania was one of the historic examples that inspired Margaret Atwood to write The Hand Maid’s Tale.

Castro and Ceauşescu during 1972 Romania visit (Romanian National History Museum)

Communist regimes in practice have one common feature, a complete disregard for the rights and dignity of the individual. Cuba under the Castro brothers went in the opposite direction from their comrades in Romania. Abortion was encouraged, and even mandated for the purpose of improving health statistics by terminating difficult pregnancies without the consent of the mother, and it now appears to also punish pregnant jailed dissidents.

The Cuban state perpetrates many forms of violence against women. Use of coerced abortion to optimize infant mortality rate in Cuba. Now, a threat of forced abortion against political prisoner Lisdany Rodríguez Isaac. Forced abortion is a violation of human rights, but not a crime internationally. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is looking to rule forced abortion as a war crime and as torture (in Nigeria) which could then be applied to other countries.  

The Cuban state announced its intention to force Lisdany Rodríguez Isaac, a Cuban political prisoner from the July 11, 2021 protests (11J), to undergo an abortion. Lisdany is seven weeks pregnant, and, as her mother recently informed Prisoners Defenders, an non-governmental organization based in Spain, the young woman fears for her life and according to Libertad Digital on January 28, 2024 she is being denied access to proper nutrition and medical attention as punishment for not undergoing an abortion.

In addition to “gender violence” by the Cuban state, these abuses also constitute “obstetric violence.” Five independent Cuban journalists spent over a year studying how obstetric violence occurs in the country and why Cuban authorities do not consider it a problem.

Why would the Cuban state consider this a problem when it is the state itself – the owner and master of public health on the island – that practices this kind of violence? The five journalists conducted a survey among 500 women who shared details of their childbirth experiences and interviewed experts, feminist activists, and healthcare professionals.

The result of this investigative effort is the website, a project by Isabel Echemendía, Claudia Padrón, Darcy Borrero, and two other journalists residing in Cuba who requested anonymity for security reasons. In May 2023, the Partos Rotos page was blocked by ETECSA, the sole internet provider in Cuba.

The state exercises gender violence every day, especially against independent journalists, opposition activists, dissident artists, and human rights defenders. The methodology includes arbitrary detentions or threats of detention; beatings; acts of repudiation by mobs; arbitrary arrests; deportations, including domestic deportations; hours or days of incommunicado detention; police harassment; home surveillance; confiscation of work equipment and cell phones; banning women from leaving their homes, which amounts to house arrest; threats to mothers of losing custody of their children, and family separations.

For decades, infant mortality statistics in Cuba have been optimized thanks to abortions performed in cases of high-risk pregnancies. It is worth remembering that abortion was partially legalized in Cuba in 1936, limited to three conditions: a mother’s life at risk, fetal conditions, and rape or incest (Stoner, Lynn. From the House to the Street: The Cuban Women’s Movement in Favor of Legal Reform (1898-1940). Madrid: Editorial Colibrí, 2003). Fidel Castro’s government approved unrestricted abortion in 1969. Now, the regime has added forced abortion – or abortion without consent – also labeled obstetric violence, to its list of possible horrors.

Forced abortion is a form of reproductive coercion: the act of forcing a woman to terminate a pregnancy against her will. Forced abortions associated with the one-child policy occurred in the People’s Republic of China between 1980 and 2015. In September 1997, a bill titled the “Forced Abortion Accountability Act” was introduced in the United States, seeking to sanction “those officials of the Chinese Communist Party, the government of the People’s Republic of China, and other persons involved in the practice of forced abortions…” (Forced Abortions, Wikipedia). Forced abortion, and the removal of wombs to sterilize women as a systematic practice today in China today against Uyghurs, a Muslim minority in China.

Forced abortions have been a form of punishment in prisons in other communist countries. North Korea banned pregnancy in its prisons in the 1980s. Many North Korean defectors claim that forced abortions were common in Chinese prisons. Most detainees in those prisons were women. Repatriated North Korean women were subjected to forced abortions regardless of their alleged crimes (BBC News Seoul. Laura Bicker, “Beatings and forced abortions: Life in a North Korea prison. 03/27/2022).

The United Nations considers forced abortion a violation of human rights for it disregards women’s reproductive and control rights, free from coercion, discrimination, or violence (CEDAW). However, since there is no legal concept of forced abortion at the international level, not even in the International Criminal Court (ICC), it is almost impossible to bring this abuse to trial. [Since 2020, a case has been under debate in the ICC against Nigeria under the category of war crimes against humanity, which is still unresolved ( 12/23/2022).
When it comes to women’s well-being, Cuba is in the worst possible company: that of Communist China and North Korea. Perhaps in the future, a law might be adopted criminalizing forced abortions that could be applied to Cuba. It would be a way to protect political prisoners –and women everywhere- from the gender violence exercised by the state. For now, we must remain vigilant against the regime’s threat against Lisdany Rodríguez Isaac. In the context of state machismo, no woman is safe from abuse, especially in prison.

Diario de Cuba, January 30, 2024

The regime tramples on the sexual and reproductive rights of women prisoners

In the case of Cuban political prisoner Lisdany Rodríguez Isaac, Havana is once again breaking its own laws and violating international legal protocols.

Ángeles Rosas

Madrid 30 Ene 2024 – 18:33 CET

Lisdany and Lidianis Rodríguez Isacc. Prisoners Defenders/X

The Cuban regime is once again breaking its own laws and violating international legal protocols that protect sexual and reproductive rights, in the case of political prisoner Lisdany Rodríguez Isacc, held in the prison of El Guamajal, in Villa Clara. Seven weeks pregnant, the young woman is being pressured to undergo an abortion at the same time she is being deprived of adequate food and medical care.

In the words of General Raúl Castro Ruz, the Constitution approved in April 2019 “synthesizes the aspirations of all those who, for more than 150 years, have fought for a free, independent, sovereign and socially just Cuba.” This vapid claim came amidst the profound economic and social crisis that the island is enduring, which the recent constitutional reform and its legislative changed have ignored.

Regarding sexual rights, the constitutional text states that “the State promotes the comprehensive development of women and their full social participation. It ensures the exercise of their sexual and reproductive rights, protects them from gender violence in all of its manifestations and spaces, and creates the institutional and legal mechanisms for this.”

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “women’s sexual and reproductive health is related to multiple human rights, such as the right to life, the right not to be tortured, the right to health, the right to privacy, the right to education and the prohibition of discrimination.”

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), meanwhile, have indicated that women’s right to health includes its sexual and reproductive components.

According to CEDAW, “the denial of access to services needed only by women; low quality services” or “forced sterilization, forced virginity examinations, and forced abortions, without women’s prior consent” constitute violations of these rights.

Likewise, the Beijing Declaration, one of the most important global roadmaps towards gender equality, states that “women’s human rights include their right to have control over and to decide freely and responsibly on issues related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, without coercion, discrimination or violence.”

The Cuban Government, a member of the Human Rights Council, having committed to comply with international legal instruments protecting human rights, has been once again exposed, this time in the case of the young Lisdany Rodríguez Isacc.

Barbara Isacc, the mother of the pregnant woman, explained that her daughter and her husband had tried for years to have a child. Rodríguez Isacc became pregnant during a conjugal visit. She told her mother that she was seven weeks pregnant. 

“She is suffering a lot of abdominal pain, and is often dizzy, and there’s no Gravinol, no medication to give her. So, they wanted to remove it (by curettage). But the poor woman doesn’t want to, because she’s never been pregnant before. She wants to have it,” the political prisoner’s mother told DIARIO DE CUBA.

“Now they won’t take her to the medical appointment they give pregnant women until ten weeks have passed,” Barbara Isacc said.

This Cuban is aware that, given her condition, her daughter needs to be well cared for and fed, but the reality, according to the testimony of hundreds of inmates, is that Cuban prisons suffer from serious shortages of food and medicine.

“Imagine, if there’s normally no food for the inmates… So, I imagine they’re doing it (pressuring Isaac to abort) for that very reason. Since the situation is bad in there, because the prisoners don?t have enough food, a pregnant woman is going to be a burden,” she added.

On Friday, the independent platform Yo Sí Te Creo (IBelieveYou) demanded that the young woman “receive all the care set down in the Mother and Child Program.” She pointed out that “it is illegal to force a person to undergo an abortion, regardless of whether they are incarcerated, in accordance with the Criminal Code in force since 2022.”

The case of the young woman, convicted, along with her twin sister Lidianis Rodríguez Isacc, for participating in the 11-J protests in Villa Clara, is not the only one featuring a violation of sexual and reproductive rights in Cuban prisons. Other women behind bars have spoken out about the abusive treatment they suffer, not only when they are pregnant, but after giving birth. Mothers and their children are separated when the children reach one year of age.

The situation is aggravated when the reason for a sentence is political, a further violation of women’s fundamental rights.

Another political prisoner, Lázara Karenia González Fernández, also convicted for her role in the 11-J demonstrations, is fighting for extrapenal leave to block the State from separating her from her son, just over a year old. This young mother from Cárdenas, Matanzas, has been sentenced to three years and six months of correctional work with internment for the crimes of disturbing the peace, contempt and resistance, of which she has only served seven months, as she was pregnant after the appeal sentence.

Lizandra Góngora, a mother of five minors and imprisoned in Isla de la Juventud, has decried the violation of her right to regular phone calls and demanded that she be transferred to a prison near her residence so that she can see her children.

“They’ve threatened to send me to Guantánamo or Pinar del Río. I think that’s unfair, because my address has been in Havana for 14 years. I’m not going to let them take me to any prison other than the one corresponding to me,” Góngora said recently.

Lisdany Rodríguez Isaac, Lázara Karenia González, and Lisandra Góngora are Cuban women who have been violated, this time not by VAW (which claimed 88 victims in 2023 and has another five so far in 2024) but rather the political violence of the Cuban state’s apparatus, which, in an effort to quash dissent, attacks mothers, children, and family.