Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Behind the Numbers: The Reproductive Rights Debate in Latin America Today

Despite some notable victories, progress is slow

In April 2015, a 10-year-old Paraguayan girl was taken to the hospital after complaining of a stomachache. She was found to be 22 weeks pregnant. Authorities said she had been raped by her stepfather. The girl’s mother requested an abortion, but the hospital refused on the grounds that it was against the law.

In Paraguay, abortion is legal when deemed necessary to save a woman’s life. But in the case of the 10-year-old girl, appeals to the country’s health ministry and justice department were denied because there was “no indication” that her health was at risk.

Unfortunately, she is not an isolated case—Amnesty International estimates that 680 Paraguayan girls between the ages of 10 and 14 gave birth in 2014, many of them the victims of domestic abuse. As this year’s Social Inclusion Index indicates, Latin America persists in maintaining some of the world’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws. While 13 of the 17 countries examined in the Index allow for the termination of pregnancy in some circumstances, as of 2008 over 95 percent of abortions in the region still took place in unsafe surroundings.2

The case in Paraguay is only one among thousands that often have dire consequences for the region’s women and girls. While the overall landscape for reproductive rights showed relatively little change in 2014, there is evidence of glacier-like movement toward easing restrictions on abortion. Earlier in 2015, for example, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet presented a bill to the country’s congress that would decriminalize abortion in the case of rape, a risk to a woman’s life or malformation of the fetus.

This shift can be partly attributed to greater numbers of women in political office and senior positions in government agencies, as well as to increasingly sophisticated campaigns for women’s reproductive rights (aided by social media and some deep pocketed supporters) at the local, national and transnational levels.

Another factor is the emergence of a determined network of human rights groups backed by conventions and protocols drafted by intergovernmental bodies and ratified by most countries in the region. For example, the Colombian Constitutional Court issued a ruling to decriminalize abortion based on the claim that Colombia’s total ban on abortion was in violation of the fundamental rights of women to life and health as declared in international human rights treaties to which Colombia is a party.

The influence of the increased number of women in elected office has become more visible in several ways. Michelle Bachelet’s bill is one example. Similarly, in 2014, Peru’s health minister, Midori de Habich, oversaw the release of guidelines for therapeutic abortions, which had been legal in the country for decades; human rights groups had alleged that at-risk women were routinely denied abortions due to the lack of standard guidelines.

And women in Argentina’s legislature—home to the world’s first gender-based quota laws—have introduced reproductive rights reforms in recent years. Increased coordination across political parties has resulted in important steps for the feminist agenda, such as ratifying the optional protocol of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), passing the contraceptive surgery law and establishing sex education in high schools.

However, the mere presence of women in power is not enough. Factors such as party affiliation and political ideology have impeded efforts to liberalize Argentina’s abortion laws, for example. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner have declared themselves to be anti-abortion and have either upheld existing restrictions on reproductive rights, vetoed attempts to ease them or tightened them even further.

The number and size of organizations seeking to influence public policy on reproductive rights have increased exponentially in recent years. While the Catholic Church has historically been one of the most vociferous antiabortion forces, the Pew Research Center reported in 2014 that more Protestants than Catholics oppose abortion in Latin America.4

These groups’ anti-abortion political clout is palpable: in response to moves that ease restrictions on reproductive rights, a number of countries and subnational governments have inscribed a “life begins at conception” proclamation into their constitutions. Legislation passed in El Salvador and Mexico exemplifies such anti-abortion measures.

In February 1999, thanks to a massive campaign by the Catholic Church, El Salvador passed a constitutional amendment recognizing personhood from conception. The April 2007 legalization of abortion in Mexico City triggered a widespread anti-choice backlash throughout the country. Since 2007, 16 of Mexico’s 31 states have passed constitutional amendments protecting the fetus (in a 17th state, Chihuahua, an amendment has already been in place since 1994).

Additionally, anti-abortion activists have mobilized major demonstrations throughout the region to protest any reforms to existing legislation. For their part, women’s organizations have stepped up activism as well. In addition to demonstrations on the streets of many Latin American cities, activists have organized prochoice campaigns to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures to present to government officials. In conjunction with international organizations such as the Center for Reproductive Rights and Human Rights Watch, these activists have brought cases to international courts and regulatory bodies to exert pressure for governmental compliance with international protocols.

While Latin America and the Caribbean have a long history of domestic activism, coordination among regional, national and global groups has expanded dramatically. New strategies, such as the use of social media, targeted political actions and judicial pressure have expanded prochoice advocacy. Human rights groups and international NGOs have also increased pressure on Latin American governments to address the issue of illegal abortions. Despite the harsh legal context, the abortion rate in the region is 32 per 1,000 pregnancies. By contrast, the rate is just 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe, where abortion laws are more permissive.

El Salvador, which has banned the procedure in all circumstances, has been criticized for its aggressive prosecution of women who terminate their pregnancies, even when they may have sought treatment for miscarriages. Those charged can face up to 80 years in prison for homicide.

A group of 17 women called “Las 17” were imprisoned for having abortions, pregnancy related complications or miscarriages. Of these 17, only one has been released, while another has finished serving her jail term. The remaining 15 women are currently serving sentences of 30 to 40 years.

In 2013, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the Salvadoran government to allow a woman access to a potentially lifesaving abortion. The woman, known as “Beatriz,” suffered from lupus and kidney disease and was carrying an anencephalic fetus (missing parts of the brain and skull). She eventually went into labor and delivered the fetus through C-section. It was born with an unformed brain and died within a few hours of birth. Nevertheless, as of June 2015, the country’s elected officials had yet to take action to change existing laws.

International pressure did appear to have an effect on prochoice legislation in the Dominican Republic. Following mobilization of national and global groups ranging from Amnesty International to the Center for Reproductive Rights, President Danilo Medina vetoed a proposed reform of the country’s criminal code that maintained full criminalization of abortion, and instead urged decriminalization of abortion in certain circumstances.

In 2014, he signed a constitutional amendment to the penal code to allow women access to abortion services in cases of rape, incest, fetal impairment, and when a pregnancy endangers a woman’s life.

The number of abortions in the Americas has declined overall, thanks to increased access to contraception, including emergency contraception known as the morning-after pill. While this progress is good news to advocates on all sides of the debate, the harmful (and sometimes fatal) results of laws restricting access to safe and legal abortion remain of grave concern.

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