No Easy Answers: Safe Abortion in Latin America


There’s an excellent article in the current issue of TIME magazine on abortion in Latin America, and it does a terrific job of describing the political and public health drama that currently surrounds women’s reproductive rights in the region.

The landscape is complex, to say the least. Across the region, legal abortion is highly restricted in most countries, completely banned in a handful (Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua), and safe and legal with few restrictions in an even smaller handful (Cuba and Guyana). Despite this legal diversity, however, abortion is widely practiced throughout the region. According to the Guttmacher Institute, over 4 million women in Latin America have abortions every year, often at the hands of unskilled, unlicensed providers. An estimated 5,000 women don’t survive the experience, and 800,000 wind up in the hospital with complications, often facing additional abuse. Worldwide, unsafe abortion is responsible for 13 percent of all pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths, but in Latin America, it causes a full 20 percent. So, like it or not, abortion is an issue.

On the one hand, the past few years have seen great victories for women’s health. In 2006 in Colombia, for example, the Constitutional Court liberalized that country’s highly restrictive abortion laws, arguing in a landmark decision that such laws violated women’s human rights. And earlier this year, the Mexico City Legislative Assembly decriminalized abortion up to 12 weeks in Mexico’s federal district. But the past few years have also brought major setbacks—last fall, the Nicaraguan National Assembly voted to criminalize abortion under any circumstances (including in cases of rape or incest, or when a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life or health), and so far, newly elected President Daniel Ortega has stood by the Assembly’s vote, even as pregnant women die. In Uruguay, reproductive rights advocates—backed up by 63 percent of the public—came within inches of decriminalizing abortion up to 12 weeks in 2004. But lately, things have taken a turn for the worse, with left-wing President Tabaré Vázquez declaring in 2006 that if Uruguayan legislators made any further attempts to loosen that country’s abortion restrictions, he would dissolve both houses of congress. Democracy incarnate! Vázquez’s gauntlet toss kind of reminds me of the Chilean parliament’s flat-out rejection of debate on a measure that would have legalized abortion up to 12 weeks in that country, which has some of the most restrictive reproductive health laws in Latin America, coupled with one of the highest abortion rates (between 100,000 and 200,000 Chilean women seek abortions every year, and over a third of pregnancies end in abortion). Coincidence? I think not.

As the TIME article points out, the loudest voices of Latin America’s New Left may be willing to speak out on a number of controversial issues, but women’s reproductive rights isn’t one of them. In such a charged political landscape, you can’t really blame them: When Chilean president Michelle Bachelet defended young women’s right to emergency contraception (EC) as a means to decrease Chile’s high rate of teen pregnancy, for example, the Church called her a totalitarian—and that was just contraception. But it’s still distressing to observe that despite the magnitude of Latin America’s unsafe abortion epidemic, and despite the historic role that feminists have played in left-wing social and political movements across the region, contemporary left-wing poster boys like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, have more or less sold out when it comes to women’s reproductive rights—even though the restrictive abortion laws those men valiantly defend and augment are themselves vestiges of the same colonialism and imperialism that Chavez, Ortega, and Morales have made their names opposing. This is an unfortunate situation, since it’s going to be hard to accomplish abortion reform without support from Latin America’s leaders.

That said, I don’t really think that political leadership is what’s going to turn the tide on abortion in Latin America. Instead, as the TIME article suggests, and as many members of the feminist and women’s movements across the region already know, a deeper social and cultural conversation is needed. Such a conversation would explore the contradictions of societies where despite the illegality of abortion, rich women can obtain safe abortions at the drop of a hat, while poor women and women living in rural areas continue to suffer and die at the hands of unskilled providers. It would explore what is going on inside the heart and the head of a woman marching against therapeutic abortion who has herself had one or more abortions. It would explore the contradictions of a Church that allegedly places the sanctity of life above all else, but that stands by while pregnant women with ectopic pregnancies, reproductive cancers, dangerous miscarriages, and other life-threatening conditions are allowed to die on the operating table, orphaning their children—a Church that excommunicates everyone involved in helping a 9-year-old girl and an 11-year-old girl obtain legal abortions, but fails to reprimand the men who raped them. And it would explore the cultural diversity of Latin American attitudes about abortion—attitudes that often fail to fit into a White North American or European abortion-rights paradigm—as well as how the legacy of sterilization abuse and coercive family planning pursued by the United States in the same region only a few decades ago continues to shape the abortion discussion.

This conversation will take time, but it will be time well spent. Based on my experience in Nicaragua, I agree with the Bolivian feminist quoted in the TIME article, who explains that “if you ask the average person in the street, they will probably say they are against” liberalizing abortion laws. But if you ask an average person in the street if they think their mothers, sisters, and daughters deserve to die because abortion is illegal, you can expect a slightly different answer. If you’re looking for reality, after all, sometimes all you need to do is go a little deeper.

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