The Lesson We Refuse to Learn: Restrictive Abortion Policies Do Not Work

Last week, the activist group Centro Las Libres drew attention to six women serving 25 to 30 year prison sentences in the Mexican state of Guanajuanto. All six were charged, and convicted, of homicide. The reason? All six, in some form, terminated a pregnancy.

This situation is not unique to Mexico. All across Latin America and the Caribbean, countries have banned or criminalized the procedure with very few, and in some cases no exceptions.

Yet, Instead of reducing the number of abortions, these draconian laws are simply forcing the procedure underground, making it unsafe and all too often deadly.

Severe restrictions do not prevent abortion. They do not protect anyone.  Instead they place women’s lives at risk. And it’s high time we put an end to that.

Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have banned the procedure outright, even when an abortion is necessary to save a woman’s life. Other Latin American and Caribbean countries severely restrict the procedure with very limited exceptions, such as to preserve a woman’s life (Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela), health (Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay), or in cases of rape or incest. Only Cuba, Guyana and Puerto Rico have legalized the procedure completely.

Yet, according to the most recent data from the Guttmacher Institute, women in Latin America and the Caribbean are undergoing 4.1 million abortions each year, the majority of which – 3.9 million – are unsafe. So unsafe that, according to IPAS, the international women’s health organization, thousands of women in the region are dying each year from complications related to unsafe abortions.

No matter how you feel about abortion, the truth of the matter is that restrictions on abortion don’t change the reasons women have them.

Instead they make women feel isolated and alone, driving them to ever more desperate measures. The jailing of these six women in Guanajuanto sends a message: and that message is that should you find yourself pregnant and scared, don’t dare get caught.

How many more women will have to be jailed, or die before we realize that these strict policies aren’t working? For how much longer will we have to watch as unrealistic legislation is imposed on women’s lives and bodies – legislation that is dramatically out of touch with women’s realities? For each woman convicted to a 30 year jail sentence, imagine how many more will die as the result of taking unsafe medication or undergoing an dangerous procedure, all in the hopes of terminating a pregnancy?

For the sake of the women of Latin America and the Caribbean, we must work to reduce maternal deaths from unsafe abortion and advance women’s reproductive health and rights. We must promote a comprehensive abortion care approach that takes into account the various factors that influence a woman’s individual health needs—both physical and mental—as well as her personal circumstances and her ability to access services. We must work to end the criminalization of abortion in the region.

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  • mary-beth-hastings

    Thanks for pointing out again what doesn’t seem to sink in for the anti-abortion rights groups: that the only “solution” they propose to abortion is the one that has been incontrovertibly proven over the course of time to NOT work. Laws make abortion less safe and more difficult, but not less frequent.  If they truly believed that abortion is murder, they would be handing out contraception on every street corner, lobbying Congress for guaranteed maternity/paternity and sick leave, begging for universal health care – all things that have shown to actually reduce the number of abortions.  The fact that their leaders don’t proves to me that it’s not about the human rights of “babies” – it’s about lording moral judgment over women who have sex.

  • eamd

    Ms. Morales, I think you’re making one incorrect assumption here:  that the goal of restrictive abortion laws is to reduce the number of abortions. I think a significant portion–perhaps the majority–of the antichoice movement would say the number of fetuses saved is a secondary concern. In fact, these laws work exactly as they are supposed to: as a method of controlling the bodies of women and punishing those who would attempt to defy that control.

  • jeccasteinberg

    Hi Ms. Morales,


    My name is Jessica Steinberg and I recently finished a 6-month internship with Centro Las Libres.  Véronica, the head of Las Libres, asked me to write you on her behalf to correct one mistake in the story.  The article states that the six women terminated their pregnancies, but all of the women were victims of spontaneous abortions.  None of them elected to terminate their pregnancies, but medical complications led to their early terminations.  The women were then jailed for allegedly aborting and murdering their infants without proper evidence or fair representation.  Rather than being charged with abortion, which normally occurs in cases like this, the women were charged with infanticide and sentenced to between 25-30 years.  None of these women committed abortions, but they have been victimized because they are poor, uneducated and have no access to quality health care.   

    This does not take away from the remainder of your article or the fact that oppressive abortion laws in Guanajuato and several Mexican states lead to human rights violations and unsafe, underground abortions.  In Guanajuato alone over 150 women have been jailed for abortions in the past decade, many of them rape victims.


    Thank you for publishing this story and helping provide a voice for these courageous women.  With the help of articles like these, hopefully we can raise enough awareness about these women to realize their freedom.



    Jessica Steinberg

    Rice University Class of 2011