The International Legal Research (ILR) Fellowship offers Penn Carey Law Students financial support for a short-term summer legal research project abroad.
By Giovanna Parini SJD ’25
After I completed the first year of my SJD, I was finally ready to head home for the summer. Home, the place where my family and my dog reside, is Paraguay. A summer off, without professional responsibilities, was a luxury I hadn’t experienced since high school. The last few years of my life have been dedicated to studying law and working for the Judiciary. The International Legal Research (ILR) Fellowship from Penn Carey Law was an opportunity to do fieldwork for the first time, outside of books and cases.
The ILR Fellowship proved to be transformative. Throughout my legal career, I had always represented the Judiciary of Paraguay, and even when expressing my personal views, I was bound by the responsibilities that came with that role. I had spent so much time training to be a judge that I had little experience navigating the waters of feminist activism or impact litigation. The ILR Fellowship gave me an opportunity to wear different “hats” in Paraguay–that of a researcher, and not a student; and that of a lawyer, not a judge’s clerk. It gave me not only financial support, but also academic validation to wear the researcher’s “hat” and ask hard questions.
I designed my summer research project as a small segment of my doctoral dissertation. Some Latin American countries are currently regarded as success stories in securing reproductive autonomy as a fundamental right. The region is far from homogeneous, however. Violations of reproductive autonomy, such as forced pregnancy, criminalization of obstetric emergencies, and compulsory sterilization, are common in several of these countries. Therefore, for the summer, I aimed to explore the specific barriers faced by a single country and identify the politics, the social movements, and the legal arguments surrounding reproductive autonomy there.
Academically, I’m fascinated by the dissonance between constitutional texts, norms, interpretations, and policies. For example, the Constitution of Paraguay is beautifully written to protect fundamental rights, but clauses are cherry-picked by the government to limit those same rights. The constitution includes a provision stating in clear language that the government recognizes a person’s right to decide, freely and responsibly, on the number and frequency of the births of their children. These provisions, coupled with other universal clauses, such as the right to health, protection against violence, broad equal protection, nondiscrimination clauses, and the recognition of an individual’s privacy and dignity, should constitute a sufficient normative framework to recognize reproductive autonomy, and yet it doesn’t. The constitutional provisions are not translated into policies. Instead, since the constitution also includes a provision that protects life from the moment of conception, reproductive autonomy as a fundamental right is unthinkable. The most tragic consequence of the resulting restrictive policies in Latin America is child motherhood: thousands of children (14 years and younger) who are victims of sexual abuse are forced to carry their pregnancies and become mothers.
My fascination with constitutional law wanes when I look at these outcomes and consider these discussions in the context of cultural norms and policies that force childbirth. So, my mission in Paraguay was to gain a better understanding of these dissonances.
I approached my first fact-finding mission with optimism about being able to gather the information I sought. But my enthusiasm was tempered by the harsh reality of criminalization in Paraguay. Information and data were elusive. I had to build trust to engage people in discussions about an issue as sensitive as reproductive autonomy.
For quantitative data, I requested public information from several institutions; some had no data relevant to the topic, and what others supplied was incomplete. For qualitative data, I conducted informal interviews with activists, lawyers, and public defenders, and the conversations shed light on the context. Some activists warned me about constant harassment they faced, and their need to be cautious about sharing their opinions.
These interviewees also mentioned that movement-building around the issue of reproductive justice had been challenging. There were no political allies who would take up the cause, either on the left or on the right. With little funding for advocacy, efforts are diverted to other tangential issues related to gender equality and violence against women. Meanwhile, “pro-life” movements have ample funding and political representation and are dedicated to enhancing the rhetoric and narratives about the protection of “life,” even in the absence of legislative efforts to secure reproductive autonomy.
I had the opportunity to speak to a judge about one of the most infamous cases in the Judiciary, in which a 10-year-old rape victim was denied access to abortion. I had access to the court file related to this case, which also provided insights into the norms and institutional culture that consistently disregards women’s and children’s reproductive freedom. I still struggle to make sense of the outcome of this case.
Though I was ultimately able to gain insights and gather information and data for my project, I was struck by the scarcity of scholarship and the lack of activism around reproductive justice in Paraguay. The road ahead is very long, and it will take “a village” to defend, protect, and secure human rights. It takes courage to confront the status quo and resist harassment while defending some scope of reproductive autonomy. Overall, this experience made me reflect on the critical role of the law in social transformation. Legal scholarship could play a big role in this particular village, but it seems to be missing.
These observations and experiences offer only a glimpse of the profound insights I gained during this legal expedition sponsored by Penn Carey Law. The whole summer experience and the chance to wear different “hats” resonated with my future professional goals and served as a catalyst for both existing and new projects involving legal research, activism, and litigation to secure fundamental rights.