Women in these countries are fighting for the right to choose what happens to their bodies and we need to support them
- theguardian.com, Tuesday 27 August 2013 08.45 EDT
States have adopted 43 restrictions on access to abortion, the second-highest number ever at the midyear mark and the same number enacted in all of 2012. These numbers are alarming and many American women are rightfully worried. I’m terrified by the trend.
If women in the US aren’t careful, we might find ourselves in a similar situation as our southern neighbours in Latin America and the Caribbean, which still have extreme abortion restrictions (pdf). Although most Latin American countries are supposedly secular, the Catholic church continues to insert itself into governments. Abortion is broadly legal in only six countries, which means it’s permitted either without restriction as to reason or on socioeconomic grounds. These countries only account for less than 5% of the region’s women aged 15 to 44. Because of these limitations, many women resort to “traditional practitioners” who use unsafe methods and purchase abortion-inducing drugs from pharmacists and other vendors.
The World Health Organization estimates that in Latin America and the Caribbean a staggering 12% of all maternal deaths were due to unsafe abortions in 2008. In the name of religion, girls as young as 9 years old have been inhumanely denied abortions though their pregnancies were life- threatening. Their family members and doctors have even been threatened with excommunication.
Why is Latin America so far behind the US and Europe in terms of abortion rights? In her article “The Politics of Abortion in Latin America“, Cora Fernandez Anderson points out that while feminist movements were gaining momentum in Europe and North America in the 1960s and ’70s, Latin American countries were busy fighting dictatorships and civil wars.
Mónica Arango Olaya, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean for the Center for Reproductive Rights, however, believes it’s more complicated than that:
While there have been dictatorships, there have also been revolutions. Supposedly, these ideas should be accompanied by abortion rights. Though there has also been strong feminist movements in many countries, reproductive rights have yet to be translated into state laws.
She uses the example of the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, a country that later banned abortion in 2006.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons Latin American women are still struggling for the basic human right to control their own bodies, but the indelible influence of the Catholic influence paired with a tumultuous political history has clearly been a dangerous combination for women. But Olaya, who has litigated several groundbreaking cases before international human rights bodies and courts in Latin America, says there have been significant advancements and legal victories in the past few years. There is hope, no doubt, but these women still face a long and arduous journey.
Here is a brief list of a few countries with the most stringent abortion laws and the consequences of their legislation.
Although Costa Rica is considered to be one of the most prosperous of Latin America countries because of its tradition of egalitarianism and civilian democracy, and investment in health and education, it is far behind in terms of reproductive rights. Abortion in Costa Rica is illegal in most cases, although the county’s penal code allows for the procedure when a woman’s life or health is at risk. This seems to be only true in theory, however. Recently, Aurora, 32, was denied the therapeutic abortion she requested though she was carrying a foetus with a fatal impairment and suffering from depression and physical pain. In a testimonial provided to the Center for Reproductive Rights, Aurora writes:
But the worst moment of the ultrasound was when I saw my baby’s twisted back and his organs exposed. … What an image. I will never be able to forget it.
El Salvador’s ban on abortion is considered to be one of the most extreme in the world. The procedure is even prohibited to save a pregnant woman’s life and the government imposes harsh criminal penalties on both women and their physicians. Anyone who performs an abortion with the woman’s consent, or a woman who self-induces or consents to someone else inducing her abortion, can be imprisoned for up to eight years. Most women, however, end up being prosecuted and sentenced for aggravated homicide, which is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Recently, Beatriz, a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman who was five months pregnant with a non-viable anencephalic (without a brain) foetus and was suffering from complications related to lupus and kidney disease was denied a potentially life-saving abortion. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered El Salvador officials to allow her medical team to take all necessary steps to preserve her life and, after 27 weeks of pregnancy, she was given a C-section. Her baby was born without a brain and died soon after.
Chile is one of only five countries worldwide to prohibit abortion in all instances. Although it once allowed therapeutic abortion, it was abolished by the military dictatorship in 1989. Abortion is illegal even in the case of rape, foetal malformation and ectopic pregnancy. Last year, the senate rejected three bills that would have eased the absolute ban. In 2010, Claudia Pizarro, a 28-year-old woman was denied both an abortion and treatment for cancer despite being pregnant with an anencephalic foetus and recently, an 11-year-old girl, Belen, became pregnant after she was repeatedly raped over the course of two years by her mother’s partner. At 14 weeks along, Belen said she wanted to give birth to her baby and President Sebastián Pinera praised her by saying her decision showed “depth and maturity”.
In 2006, Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega, once a supporter of abortion rights, passed a complete ban on abortion that offered no exceptions for women’s health, victims of rape or incest or women whose lives are at risk. In 2010, a 27-year-old woman named Amalia was admitted to a hospital and was diagnosed with an advanced case of cancer that had metastasised and may have spread to her breasts, brain and lungs. Because she was pregnant, she was told she couldn’t be prescribed an aggressive chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment. Amalia delivered a severely malformed baby at seven months and she lived another 17 months. In 2009, Delegates from Amnesty International who visited the country said young girls subjected to sexual violence by family or friends are forced to give birth even when they are carrying their own brothers and sisters. The ban continues to this day though the Amnesty International Report claims the law is in conflict with the Nicaraguan obstetric rules and protocols issued by the ministry of health, which mandates therapeutic abortions in specific cases.
Despite the bleakness of these cases, women in these countries continue fighting for the right to choose what happens to their bodies and we need to support them, even from afar.