Women’s Experiences Matter? Natalie Kimball’s An Open Secret: The History of Unwanted Pregnancy and Abortion in Modern Bolivia

Historians in the News
tags: abortion, womens history, Bolivia, Latin American history, reproductive rights

Women’s experiences matter – this simple truth is at the core of Natalie Kimball’s brilliant new exploration into the tragic history of unwanted pregnancy and abortion in highland Bolivia over the past sixty years. As Kimball so eloquently argues in her book An Open Secret: The History of Unwanted Pregnancy and Abortion in Modern Bolivia, Bolivian women’s intimate experiences with unwanted pregnancy and abortion matter for three reasons. Most broadly, they shaped reproductive policies and services in highland Bolivia between 1952 and 2010, the years her study analyzes. These experiences also reveal the “deeply ambivalent attitudes about women, and about sexuality more broadly” in urban Bolivia. But, most importantly, as Kimball writes, “women’s experiences matter simply because they occur” (3).

Take the story of Marcela (Kimball changed all names for privacy), a married mestiza woman who had two abortions at the ages of twenty-six and thirty. With her husband, she had four living children (she had abortions after her second and third children). Although at first, Marcela cited economic reasons as the impetus behind terminating her pregnancies, she later described the sexual abuse she received at the hands of her husband as the primary reason. “‘I argued with my husband,’” Marcela told Kimball, because he had chided her for getting pregnant in the first place. Marcela responded to her husband, “‘I didn’t ask you [for sex], you looked for me, I mean, you use me.’” Marcela then described to Kimball what she saw as the ubiquity of her experience: “‘I think many women experience this in Bolivia because men use us sexually. . . . There’s a lot of machismo, for that reason; yes, I’ve aborted two times.’” (135). It is stories like that of Marcela’s that fill the book and give it a rich empirical and emotional basis.

The backbone of this book draws from well over one hundred oral history interviews with women who experienced unwanted pregnancy and abortion, as well as conversations with activists, medical professionals, and government officials. Kimball complements these rich sources with an impressive analysis of medical records, demographic reports, and governmental policy. With care and deep humility, Kimball details her oral history methods and experiences, without ever losing sight of the women she spoke with. Writes Kimball, “When, during the course of an interview, a woman wept about her experience with pregnancy or the loss of a loved one, I responded as a human being rather than a historian, abandoning my prepared questions to express empathy and to ask if she had individuals to whom she could turn for support.” These are not “deviations from the script,” contends Kimball, but rather “inevitable expressions of our humanity and individuality as researchers” (31).


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