Martha Solay spent Mother’s Day in pain, knowing her life would soon be over. As her eldest daughter Yenny injected her with painkillers, she coiled into a fetal position, cupped her face in her hands and screamed. Daniela, her two-year-old daughter, stood at the bedside with a curious look, shifting her attention between the crying and the Tarzan cartoons on television. She was too young to understand that her own abortion might have saved her mother’s life.
Three years earlier, when Martha was two months pregnant with Daniela, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Doctors in her home city of Pereira withheld radiation treatment that could have cured her because it would have terminated the fetus, a procedure that was illegal, with no exceptions. Martha was forced to wait out the pregnancy, giving her cancer time to become terminal.
Unlike many women afraid to arouse the ire of their conservative Catholic communities, she told her story to activists, journalists and even Congress in an effort to prevent others from sharing her painful fate. ‘I brought my little grain of salt,’ she said, ‘so that what happened to me won’t happen to other women.’
Public clamour over her story helped sway Colombia’s highest court to lift the total ban on abortion in 2006. The landmark decision allowed for the procedure when the life of the mother is in danger, when the fetus is expected to die, or in cases of rape or incest. It emboldened women’s rights groups across Latin America, a region that is home to some of the world’s most stringent abortion laws.
But the decision came too late for Martha. She died in June 2007.
Martha was an unlikely candidate to become a national symbol for women’s rights. A 35-year-old mother of four, she earned less than a dollar an hour as a maid and receptionist at the Hotel Capriany, a well-kept establishment on a seedy street frequented by couples who only use the rooms for an hour or two at a time. Until her final months, when she and her daughters moved into a two-bedroom house, they lived crammed into a single room. Outspoken and blunt, with a fondness for crude commentary, Martha didn’t blend easily into the streets of Pereira. She demanded attention from street vendors, who always responded immediately whenever she placed an order.
Her determination to tell her story was not easy to sustain in a tradition-bound society like Colombia. Even some of Martha’s loved-ones opposed her. The Conservative Government of President Alvaro Uribe supported the Church’s views on abortion. Martha said the local bishop excommunicated her after the court’s decision, which the Church equated with legalizing murder.
Several blocks away from Martha’s hotel, I met Father Hernan Quintero in the local church. He believed abortion had to be banned, even if it could save a mother’s life: ‘Well, everyone is going to die,’ he said. ‘That’s something natural… How many people have been cured of cancer? How many people have been cured of terminal illnesses?’
Martha found supporters, however, in women’s rights groups, like the Madrid-based Women’s Link Worldwide. Monica Roa, director of the group’s Bogotá office, filed the original claim to loosen Colombia’s abortion law. ‘There is a lot of the human drama that is lost in the debate,’ she said. ‘When Martha decided to tell her story in front of the cameras, she reminded us all of what the whole debate was about. Yes, it was about constitutional arguments and the use of international standards… but at the end of the day, it was about women dying because they couldn’t get an abortion and all the drama that comes with it. I think the public opinion polls went up in support of our case after she came out with her story.’
Colombia’s decision bolstered a nascent pro-choice movement across the region. Mexico City defied the Vatican in April 2007 by legalizing first-trimester abortions. Brazilian President Lula encouraged debate on the issue just days before Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed his opposition during a recent visit.
Martha did not feel guilty for having wanted to abort her child – nor did she regret having her
Still, pro-choice groups have a long way to go. In Latin America the procedure is only completely legal in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guyana. Some four million abortions per year are practised in the region and most of them are illegal, according to the UN. As many as 5,000 women are believed to die each year from complications.
Ironically, though the pro-choice cause is identified with progressive movements in the US and Europe, the recent emergence of leftist presidents across Latin America has made little difference. Abortion is totally banned in Nicaragua, where former Marxist revolutionary Daniel Ortega was recently elected President. Chile also forbids the procedure under all circumstances, even though left-leaning President Michelle Bachelet legalized a morning-after pill in 2006. Uruguay’s leftist President Tabaré Vasquez opposes abortion rights. And little pro-choice activism has emerged in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez.
In Colombia change remains slow. Doctors and NGOs say some hospitals still refuse to perform the procedure even under special circumstances. Thousands of illegal abortions still occur every year, causing the deaths of hundreds of women. Legal abortions are now, however, an option in some hospitals. Before she died, Martha was in contact with one nine-year-old girl who had access to a legal abortion after she was raped by a family member.
In her final months, Martha’s greatest concern was not her pain but trying to ensure her daughters would have a roof over their heads. Indeed, after she died, the girls were forced to live separately with various family members. Martha had no savings. Her girls’ father, whom she had not married, was unemployed and had left Martha for another woman. The owner of the house they lived in, who let the family live there rent-free after she heard Martha’s story on the news, was looking to sell her property. The only daughter old enough to work was 18-year-old Yenny, but she was studying. So Martha continued logging long shifts until a few days before her death. ‘That woman is admirable,’ said Nidia Lucia Mosquera, who covered Martha’s shifts at the hotel when she was too ill to work. ‘You see her sick, with her pain, and she keeps going.’
As I walked with her to her work one sunny Saturday, Martha carefully sipped a glass of milk filled with soggy crackers. She could only eat soft foods because, by then, the cancer was eating through her large intestine. Even so, at times Martha’s energy seemed boundless. She was about to work a 20-hour double shift so she could afford food and medicine for the week. Suddenly, as we sat down for an interview, she moaned softly and hunched over. ‘It’s like when a dog grabs you, bites you and won’t let go; that’s how I feel,’ she said.
The following morning, Mother’s Day, Martha arrived home and sprawled out on her bed, bawling. The sound filtered through her neighbours’ walls. ‘There are times when she can’t contain that pain… and I cry with her, and pray to the Lord,’ neighbour Elpia Charry de Jimenez told me, breaking into a sob. The next day Martha would be hospitalized with a ruptured intestine.
Blind to misfortune, Martha’s three younger daughters – aged seven, six and two – played with dolls and watched cartoons. They imitated their mother’s grimaces and feigned taking painkillers, then burst into laughter. For them it was a game. Martha hadn’t tried to explain to them why she was dying, trusting Yenny to do this when they grew older. But six-year-old Maria José was trying to put the pieces together. ‘She has cancer because she had a lot of kids,’ she said. She nodded when I asked her if she was sad, but she didn’t stop smiling and went back to playing with her sisters.
And then there was two-year-old Daniela. She moved restlessly around the room, where a dim green light fell on her mother’s face from a hole in the corrugated roof that served as a skylight. With an innocent smile, she played hide-and-seek behind the curtains. Martha said she did not feel guilty for having wanted to abort her child – nor did she regret having her. None of that was part of Daniela’s world yet. She will grow up without a mother. But she can also grow up with the knowledge that her mother’s death helped save lives.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7