Jocelyn Viterna is the chair of Harvard’s Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, a professor of sociology, and a researcher of sexual and reproductive rights.
Jocelyn Viterna is the chair of Harvard’s Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, a professor of sociology, and a researcher of sexual and reproductive rights. By Marina Qu

Fifteen Questions: Jocelyn Viterna on El Salvador, Abortion Bans, and Finding Patterns

FM sat down with sociologist Jocelyn Viterna to talk about her research into gender politics and reproductive justice in El Salvador. “If a social movement is not based in actually changing the hearts and minds and practices of individuals, then I think it’s always going to be vulnerable,” she says.
By Michal Goldstein

Jocelyn Viterna is the chair of Harvard’s Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, a professor of sociology, and a researcher of sexual and reproductive rights.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: In your Los Angeles Times article about Evelyn Beatriz Hernanda Cruz who was found guilty of aggravated homicide for giving birth to a stillborn baby, you write about the “moral panic” happening in El Salvador. Can you talk a little bit about that theory of the “moral panic”?

JV: What we see in El Salvador is that the large majority of women who went to jail for pregnancy-related crimes did not have an abortion. They were seven, eight, even nine months pregnant. They lived in impoverished conditions. They went into labor when they were alone. They had no support. Sometimes they tried to call 911, but because it was a high crime area, the police or the ambulance didn’t come, and something happened that the baby was either stillborn or died shortly after birth through no fault of their own.

In 1998, a new abortion ban went into effect, and in 1999, it was put into the constitution. The funny thing is that abortion had always been illegal in El Salvador, there were just a few exceptions, like if the life of the mother was at risk, then their doctors could perform an abortion. What this new law did was it took away those exceptions, and it said “no abortion, no exceptions, not in any case.”

But in the process of changing that law, the anti-abortion movement started talking extensively about these “unnatural mothers” or these “perverse mothers” who would throw away their babies and how this was a terrible travesty in society. There would be newspapers that talked about “hundreds of babies are being thrown away,” even though they had absolutely no data that was happening. So the only explanation I have for why women who have some sort of obstetrical emergency are reported for abortion is the moral panic that arose around this time.

FM: So legally the way that, for example, a case like this would be persecuted, is not saying, “It’s illegal that you had a stillborn baby,” but saying, “We assume that you had an abortion because this happened, and because of that, we can persecute you,” and then the evidence gets muddled. But what’s illegal is the abortion, and it’s assumed that someone had that?

JV: Right. Doctors were told, if you suspect someone had an abortion, and you did not report it, you could go to jail as an accomplice.

FM: In that same article, you wrote that a “series of assumptions served as the sole basis for a guilty verdict,” referring to the conjectures made about Cruz’s possible motives. How does the Salvadoran legal system diverge from the “innocent until proven guilty” principle in the United States, and how does that affect women’s verdicts when it comes to stillbirths?

JV: I think largely because there was such an intense pressure put on state officials but there was also a sort of a sense of a mission among state officials that they were going to tackle this problem of “unnatural mothers” killing their babies, there was a hunt to put them in jail no matter what the evidence.

I actually interviewed one politician who was a key proponent of the anti-abortion legislation. When I asked him why he didn’t believe that the women were innocent given all of the evidence of their innocence, he told me that women who are good mothers, who are true mothers, can do anything to save their children if they really want to. And in fact, he talked about how mothers can lift burning cars off their children with a surge of energy.

FM: Some activists have argued that simply eliminating strict anti-abortion laws could eliminate many of their consequences for women who are persecuted for harming their babies. Do you think this law reversal could solve the problem? Why or why not?

JV: I’m strongly in favor of changing the law in El Salvador.

For the kinds of women that I’ve studied, I think it’s going to be much more complicated than just changing the law, because the law changes first, but then the institutions change to meet the law. So we now have judicial systems that understand gender differently that prosecute gender differently.

FM: Your research into reproductive health and the criminalization of abortion has mostly centered on El Salvador. When did you first visit El Salvador?

JV: I first went to El Salvador in January of 1995. It was my senior year of college at Kansas State University.

FM: You’re planning a few trips to El Salvador this year in continuation of your research. What are your goals in your upcoming visits?

JV: I always have a lot of irons in the fire when I go to El Salvador.

I think the thing I’m most excited about is I meet with the women who were formerly incarcerated.

I met them in jail when they were still incarcerated for pregnancy related crimes, and over the years, the feminist group there has worked hard to get them out of prison. And now they are mobilizing into their own group and trying to figure out how to restart their lives in a country that still tends to label them as “baby killers” and where it’s very difficult to find work or get education. I’ve been working with them on some different training programs as well as sort of building a webpage and thinking about how they want to move forward in the world.

FM: When did you learn Spanish? And was it in preparation of your work in El Salvador, or did you learn it before?

JV: I was born and raised in a rural community in western Nebraska, and in seventh grade, I only had one elective in my schedule, and I could choose industrial arts, vocational agriculture, or home economics.

Then in eighth grade, I moved to Manhattan, Kansas, where my dad took a new job, and although it’s only a town of about 60,000, it felt like a rocking metropolis to me. This school offered all these different courses, and that was the first time I had a chance to study a language.

I started studying Spanish there, and I just fell in love with it.

I also had an incredible teacher named Ms. King, who felt it was very important to bring current events into the classroom. And it was the 1980’s and the current events of the 1980’s was the civil war in El Salvador. So not only did I love the language aspect of it, but I think it was the introduction into Spanish that also brought me to El Salvador, because it was through my Spanish class that I became aware of what was happening in El Salvador.

FM: Though El Salvador is more known for its justice violations against mothers, the U.S.’s own abortion debate seems to have escalated in recent years. Do you believe there are any similarities between abortion rhetoric in the United States and arguments used in El Salvador?

JV: Absolutely. The rhetoric and the arguments used by the anti-abortion activists is almost identical, just translate it from English to Spanish.

FM: In addition to research on anti abortion legislation, you also specialize in gender politics and teach about the enforcement of the gender binary. I recently learned in a training by the Office for Gender Equity at Harvard that an estimated 1.7 percent of the population is born with intersex traits. How do you hope society can change to better include people with intersex traits? And why don’t people know this?

JV: I think the existence of intersex populations really helps us understand the ways that the binary has been culturally created and socially constructed to reinforce power. But I’m also very concerned that we put too much pressure on intersex individuals to sort of challenge the whole system. Most of them just want to live their lives in whatever gender they choose.

It’s a complicated process, but I’m really grateful to the intersex activists who have been speaking out about intersex rights specifically and the cascading implications that has for all discussions about gender and sexuality.

FM: You’re a sociologist in practice, though much of your research focuses on legal cases and policies. How do you feel that your sociological lens offers a perspective that a legal lens might lack and how do you balance these perspectives in your work?

JV: It’s been really interesting to work with lawyers and judges over the years, because lawyers and judges are trained only to look at the case at hand. They’re not trained to look at data outside of this case.

As a sociologist, what we do is exactly the opposite. What we do is we look for patterns in society. One of the things that sociologists can bring to the judicial system is an attempt to help judges meet the unbiased application of the law by recognizing their own bias.

FM: You’re in the WGS space, but you’re in the Sociology Department. How does that work?

JV: Well, it’s somewhat unusual. I’ve been in the Sociology Department for 17 years here at Harvard and have always enjoyed spending time in WGS because of the incredible scholars here.

FM: Your research into gender-based legislation has likely involved peering into the world of social movements and how they have or haven’t worked. In your opinion, what makes a pro-abortion movement successful?

JV: When change is created, at the institutional level, you hope that it will be enduring because institutions endure, but as we’ve seen with the Jackson v. Dobbs case, that’s not always true. If a social movement is not based in actually changing the hearts and minds and practices of individuals, then I think it’s always going to be vulnerable.

I’ve been really moved by cases in Latin America that have had a lot more success than the United States has, and one in particular was Argentina. In Argentina, the pro abortion rights movement partnered very closely with other progressive movements. It was sort of lots of movements that were siloed, but it worked very closely to think about how abortion rights were also part of workers’ rights, and were also part of socioeconomic inequality arguments, and the like. The argument really moved forward largely on the basis of justice.

I think that kind of broad-based coalition led to change that is much less likely to be overturned and much more likely to support anyone who needs to access reproductive care without shame and with community support.

FM: How do you think gender politics affects the success of a social movement? In what ways are women “allowed” or “not allowed” to effectively protest?

JV: I have an idea that I’ve been puzzling over in social movement theory for a while now. I’m thinking about how to study this, the caveat is that I haven’t studied this or tested this.

Of the case studies that we have of social movements, we can see that gender is front and center of how people think about presenting themselves and their narratives and their arguments. I also feel like, from my own research about the war in El Salvador to other things I’ve read about movements, that gender is regularly mobilized and particularly the notion of women and mothers and children. These identities are mobilized to suggest that a movement is righteous, that a movement is moral.

So, for example, gun control movements might argue that we need better gun control because guns are regularly used to kill women and children in intrafamilial violence situations. But on the other side, the gun rights lobby might argue that women need weapons to protect themselves from predators, or that we should arm teachers to protect children.

I think there’s something about the fact that we so often use feminine identities to signal virtue, that regardless of if the progressive or conservative movement, in the process what we’re doing is reinforcing some of these traditional notions of femininity as good and pure and wholesome and caring in ways that actually make it harder to make progress on gender-based movements.

FM: Do you do the thing that will make the movement more successful, maybe, or do you do the thing that’s true to how you feel, and what is the better way to protest?

JV: It’s about tactics.

In my first book, where I talked about women who fought as guerrillas in the civil war in El Salvador, what I found was there was a lot of narratives about how the fact that women were picking up guns and fighting for revolutionary change was supposed to really create strong women and leapfrog forward the feminist movement.

But what I found was that by giving them guns, the left guerrilla movement was able then to articulate this movement, as particularly just, as particularly righteous because even the women would fight, right?

They were, you know, putting, leaving their babies at home and taking up arms because this was such an important battle.

And I think that did two things. One, is it gave them the moral high ground in their own narrative. But the other thing it did is it sucked the value out of women’s participation, right? It’s like, normally women wouldn’t participate, the regular woman in regular times would not participate. And so it means by making it exceptional, then it made it very easy to push women back into the home once the conflict ended.

— Magazine Editor-at-Large Michal Goldstein can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bymgoldstein.

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