Too Dangerous for Democracy: Abortion in Latin America

It's official: on Friday, November 17, outgoing President Enrique Bolaños signed Nicaragua's total ban on abortion into law, over the protests of women and their doctors. In Nicaragua, life-saving abortions are now punishable by six years in prison – substantially less than Bolaños's requested penalty (30 years) or the Catholic and Evangelical Churches' (20 years). Of course, the lighter prison sentence doesn't change the fact that countless women will wind up paying for their reproductive transgressions with their lives – as one woman already has.

The Boston Globe and Women's ENews recently published strong articles on the public health consequences of the ban, but there's another trend worth highlighting – across Latin America, where 3.9 million women seek abortions every year and unsafe, illegal procedures cause 1 in 5 pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths, women's reproductive health has grown disturbingly immune to democracy.

In Nicaragua, where an estimated 36,000 women resort to illegal abortions every year, the ban was a kind of election-year pact between the leaders of the Catholic and Evangelical Churches and the major political parties and presidential candidates. Church leaders provided a blueprint for the legislation, the leading presidential candidates threw their support behind it, the National Assembly rubber-stamped it, and the president quietly signed it into law on a Friday night. The women's movement and the medical community were locked out of the legislative process.

In Chile, where General Augusto Pinochet banned therapeutic abortion during the final days of his dictatorship in the late 1980s, an estimated 130,000 women seek unsafe, illegal abortions every year, and 32,000 end up in the hospital with complications. Given these statistics, it's not surprising that the majority of Chilean women support legalizing abortion under circumstances where a woman's life is at risk or in cases of rape. Yet on Tuesday, November 21, the Chilean congress voted 61-21 to reject debate on a measure that would have legalized therapeutic abortion up to 12 weeks. To clarify: they didn't vote down the legislation, they voted to reject debate-meaning that the topic of abortion is not even permitted to enter into the legislative process.

In Uruguay in 2004, the Senate narrowly rejected a bill that would have legalized abortion up to 12 weeks while ensuring access to sex ed, contraception, and maternal care, despite the fact that 63 percent of Uruguayans supported the measure. When a coalition of civil society groups took steps to reintroduce the legislation this year, newly elected President Tabaré Vázquez not only threatened to veto it, but also threatened to dissolve both houses of congress if they overrode his veto.

Across the region, abortion may be a subject too touchy for politicians' taste, but for women, it's reality, pure and simple. In Uruguay, women won't back down easily; they're currently pressuring the congress to reconsider the 2004 reproductive health legislation. And here in Nicaragua, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights will be challenging the abortion ban in the Supreme Court, since according to Bayardo Izabá, the Center's Executive Director, it violates at least 15 articles of Nicaragua's constitution. Women's groups are monitoring women who may need therapeutic abortions, in preparation for a case that they hope to present to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., based on the ban's violation of women's right to life. They are also collecting 200,000 signatures to demonstrate popular opposition to the ban, and planning a major action for January's legislative and executive inauguration days. Their message is simple, and it rings true throughout the region, even if their legislators refuse to acknowledge, discuss, or address it: ensuring women's reproductive health belongs on the political agenda, not the democratic cutting-room floor.

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