Abortion Rights in Latin America: A Tale of Varying Woes

Every year, on September 28th, women’s groups mobilize for the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion. The movement started in Latin America and the Caribbean in 1990 to demand that their governments decriminalize abortion, provide access to safe and affordable abortion services, and end the stigma and discrimination towards women who choose to have an abortion.

Women’s groups demand safe and legal abortion outside Congress in Argentina (photo: Celina Andreassi)Source: The Argentina Independent

Every year, on September 28th, women’s groups mobilize for the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion. The movement started in Latin America and the Caribbean in 1990 to demand that their governments decriminalize abortion, provide access to safe and affordable abortion services, and end the stigma and discrimination towards women who choose to have an abortion.

However, 24 years on, Latin America is still well behind other regions of the world in terms of the legalization of, and access to, abortion. The region is home to five of only seven countries worldwide in which abortion is absolutely prohibited by law, while only five countries have decriminalized abortion entirely. This has resulted in avoidable maternal deaths, the criminalization of women trying to procure an abortion, and accentuated emotional torment for women and girls across the region.

Following media scrutiny of some particularly harrowing cases, 2013 has seen momentum for the pro-rights campaign building. So, as another September 28th just passed, here is a look at some of the varying abortion laws across the region and the forces of opposition to the legalization of abortion in Latin America.

Prohibited in all Circumstances: Castigating the Vulnerable

Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic are five of only seven countries worldwide to prohibit abortion under any circumstances. This includes victims of rape or women whose lives are at risk. Each of these countries has introduced their bans independently over the last 25 years, but with the same disastrous consequences for the vulnerable women and girls affected.

El Salvador

In El Salvador, the ban on abortion was introduced in 1998, which not only prevents women from terminating their pregnancy under any circumstances, but also targets those suspected of procuring one, and anyone complicit in the process. Women who induce a termination themselves can face eight years in prison; however, as a result of certain chilling interpretations of the law there have been cases where women have been charged with aggravated homicide, which carries a sentence of 30 years or more.

Despite these strict laws abolishing abortions, women throughout the country are still attempting to induce their own terminations. This is hardly surprising considering that, according to Dr. Roberto Ochoa, the director of the Maternity Hospital in San Salvador, 30 percent of pregnancies are to women and girls under the age of 19, of which a significant number of are results of rape or incest. The methods resorted to by some of these women are frightening, and in most cases incredibly dangerous. According to Rosa Gutierrez, from Catholics for Choice, an organization supporting access to legal terminations, women have used “battery acid, crochet needles, anti-parasitic drugs” and even “sticks of an umbrella” to induce terminations.

One particular case sparking international outrage earlier this year was the pregnancy of Beatriz, a 22-year-old suffering from lupus and kidney failure, and already a mother of a toddler. Not only did Beatriz’s pregnancy pose severe risks to her health, but scans revealed that her baby had anencephaly, a condition where part of its brain was missing, and would not survive birth. Beatriz, along with doctors and members of the Ministry of Health, appealed to both the country’s president and to the country’s judges to allow for an exception in her case, by agreeing to a termination.

As the case went on, the religious factions within the country made their positions clear. San Salavador’s Archbishop, Jose Luis Escobar Alas, said that any reforms to the law would result in “the scalpel killing babies”, whilst a film by Sarah Spiller of Al Jazeera, shows the country’s leading Evangelical pastor, Dr Edgar Lopez, proclaiming that the mother’s life being at risk was just “a very good excuse,” explaining that whatever happens will be “God’s Will”.

The judges ruled against a termination, but allowed Beatriz to have a caesarean section in her 27th week of pregnancy, a decision that led to widespread domestic and international protests. Beatriz’s baby lived for just five hours. Doctors are still investigating the effects of the pregnancy on her health.


Nicaragua’s ban on abortion in all circumstances is a more recent development. It was implemented in 2006 by President Daniel Ortega, once a supporter of abortion rights. The law in Nicaragua is much the same as that in El Salvador, but with a ghastly twist. Not only are there prison sentences for women who undergo abortions, and the medical staff who help them, but the law also introduced criminal sanctions for doctors and nurses who treat a pregnant woman or girl for illnesses such as cancer, malaria, HIV/Aids or cardiac emergencies if such treatment could cause injury to, or lead to the death of, the embryo or fetus. After returning from a visit to Nicaragua, Katie Gilmore, Amnesty International’s Executive Secretary General said, “Nicaragua’s ban of therapeutic abortion is a disgrace. It is a human rights scandal that ridicules medical science and distorts the law into a weapon against the provision of essential medical care to pregnant girls and women.”

In a separate report on Nicaragua’s abortion law, Amnesty International stated that the law has led to a recorded rise in pregnant teenagers committing suicide through poisoning, particularly as the government is offering no alternatives to abortion for victims of rape and incest.

‘My life has value, my body is priceless’ (photo: Beatrice Murch)Chile

One of the earliest outright bans on abortion in Latin America was imposed in Chile. Whilst previously allowing therapeutic abortion, this policy was reversed in 1989 when the military dictatorship, led by Augusto Pinochet, abolished abortion in all circumstances. Since the ban, abortion laws have continued to be a point of contention within the country. In fact, since 1990 there have been 15 abortion-related bills submitted to Congress for discussion, and the debate has accelerated in recent years.

In 2008, Corporación Humanas conducted an all-female poll on the topic and found that 79 percent of Chilean women believed that abortion should be permitted when the woman’s life was at risk, and 74 percent believed that it should be permitted in cases of rape. Only last year, three bills were put to the senate to ease the absolute ban on abortion, however, all three were rejected.

National and international controversy was sparked earlier this year following the notorious case of 11-year-old Belén, who had been repeatedly raped over a number of years by her mother’s partner, eventually becoming pregnant in 2013. As the media began following the case, Belén released a statement in which she said that she intended to keep the baby.

Current President Sebastian Piñera responded by stating that Belén had “shown depth and maturity, when she said that, despite the pain caused by the man who hurt her, she wanted to have and take care of the baby.” The president’s reaction was not well received by abortion rights activists, leading to protests across the country. An example of their anger saw activists interrupting Mass at the Cathedral of Santiago, destroying confessionals, and defaming side altars with blasphemous graffiti.

Permitted Conditionally: Loosening the Shackles

The majority of Latin American countries do have circumstances in which abortion is legal. This law usually only applies when a women’s life is at risk, or in the case of rape or incest. But, even when it is permitted, there are many legal and practical hurdles; often, when authorization is eventually given, it is too late.

Argentina & Mexico

In Argentina, abortion is considered a crime, but is permitted when carried out in order to prevent danger to the life or health of the mother, or when the pregnancy is the result of rape. Even with these exceptions to the law, it is estimated that around 500,000 women resort to ‘underground’ abortions each year, which, official figures show, account for 30 percent of the total preventable maternal deaths in Argentina.

There is, however, increasing support for the decriminalization of abortion in Argentina, with the establishment of the ‘Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito’ in 2005, along with a new campaign, launched by Amnesty International Argentina, to bring forward “a serious and democratic debate” on the legalization of abortion in 2013.

In Mexico, the federal stance on abortion across the country is more encouraging. In 2008, the Supreme Court found no legal impediment to abortion in the Constitution, and therefore decriminalized it. However, while decriminalized at a federal level, it is not always applied locally as laws are determined on a state to state basis. This has resulted in a huge variation in the abortion laws across the country. In only 13 of the 31 Mexican states, abortion is decriminalized, provided that it is performed during the first 12 weeks of gestation, while the penal codes of all the other states permit abortions in cases of rape, and all but three permit it to save the mother’s life.

Even with partial decriminalization of abortion across the country, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, a charity that campaigns for women’s rights to control their own fertility, estimates that 500,000 to 1,500,000 illegal abortions are induced each year, 150,000 of which result in the women needing hospital treatment due to complications.

Decriminalization: Leaders of Progress

There are five states in the region that have recognized women’s rights to make their own decisions, and offer legal terminations without restriction. These are: Cuba, French Guiana (an overseas department of France), Guyana, Puerto Rico (a US territory), and Uruguay. However, these areas combined account for less than 5 percent of the region’s women aged between 15 to 44 ,and are faced with continuous opposition to their progressive position on abortion.

Uruguay is one of the few countries in Latin America to decriminalise abortion (photo: Libertinus, via flickr)Uruguay

Uruguay was set to decriminalize abortion in 2008 when the Senate of Uruguay voted 17 to 13 in support of this bill, only for the decision to be vetoed by President Tabaré Vázquez. However, Vázquez was out of office in 2011 when a second bill to legalize abortion was put to the vote. Again the Senate voted in favor of the bill, and this time, the law was passed.

However, even though one significant battle was won in 2011, the war over abortion law in Uruguay is not over. On June 23 anti-abortion advocates attempted to overturn the country’s abortion laws by calling for a referendum. For this to take place they needed support from 25 percent of the population, but could only muster 9 percent. This opposition will not disappear over night, as it is certain that their unjust crusade will continue as long as abortion laws in the region remain divided.

Before abortion was legalized in Uruguay, the United Nations Population Fund estimated that there were 30,000 unsafe abortions attempted every year, with many women and girls dying as a result. Since the new law was passed, abortion related maternal deaths have been virtually eliminated.

What is Holding Latin America Back?

The continued criminalization of abortion in Latin America is a sad and needless characteristic of the region, in a world where two-thirds of the entire population of women live in countries where abortion can be obtained for a variety of social, economic or personal reasons.

Author Cora Fernandez Anderson, argues in her article, ‘The Politics of Abortion in Latin America’, that as countries were busy fighting dictatorships and civil wars, feminist organizations focused their energies “to oppose the brutal regimes and to address the needs of poor populations […] reproductive rights just had to wait.”

While women’s groups have since worked tirelessly to promote reproductive rights across the region, they have faced stark resistance from both the Catholic church and the religious right in the United States.

Even though most countries in the region are officially secular, Latin America is the largest Catholic region in the world, and the church continues to have a huge influence among governments across the whole region.

The religious right in the United States does not wield the same influence in Latin America, but it does hold substantial clout over the political right in its own country. The significance of this is that the United States has banned federal funding for international NGOs involved in advocating, or even advising on, the legalization of abortion.

With such prominent structures of opposition in place, it is sure that the battle to legalize abortion across Latin America will not be won any time soon. In some countries, the laws on abortion are progressing, while in others they are retreating further. Until women are allowed their own moral and legal rights to follow their own conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health, Latin America will have more sad stories, like that of Beatriz, to tell to the world.