Abortion access and violence against women in Latin America

˙ Voces

In early July, three women were stabbed as they peacefully protested for reproductive rights in Santiago, Chile. Twitter commentators and journalists noted the hypocrisy of their stabbing by self-described “pro-lifers.” Over the course of the summer, various countries in the region witnessed protests for increased access to abortion in response to moves by national governments to either refuse to legalize or increasingly criminalize the procedure, which is already heavily stigmatized and difficult to obtain in Latin America.  The threats and physical violence faced by advocates for abortion access occur in a broader context of female insecurity in the region. Latin America, and particularly Central America, has one of the highest rates of gender-based sexual violence and femicide in the world, and the restrictions on reproductive rights pose another significant—state-sanctioned—health and life risk, particularly for poorer women.

In most countries in Latin America, abortion is only legal when the mother’s life is at risk or in cases of rape or incest; some countries also allow it if the fetus is not viable or for the health of the mother. Punishment for assisting in or obtaining an abortion is severe: in Argentina, the penal code sentences the woman receiving an abortion to one to four years in prison, and an assisting practitioner up to ten years. In 2014, an Argentinian court sentenced a woman to eight years in prison for aggravated homicide for having a “spontaneous abortion”—a miscarriage. Six countries in Latin America– and three of seven countries in Central America—prohibit abortion in all cases (with a fourth, Guatemala, considering a total ban). According to a 2017 UN report, 2 out of every 3 women killed in Central America are victims of femicide, or the murder of a woman because of her gender. According to Medicins sans Frontiers, Honduras, another country with a total ban, sees the most women raped – 200 per month — in the region; considering that rape is a chronically underreported crime, the real number is probably much higher. In El Salvador, getting an abortion carries a maximum sentence of 8 years in prison, but depending on the stage of the pregnancy, women can face a charge of aggravated homicide, punishable by 20 to 30 years in prison. Women who have miscarriages from pregnancy complications have been accused of homicide and sentenced to decades in prison.

The Guatemalan Congress is currently considering a “Law for the Protection of Life and Family” (Initiative 5272) that would totally ban abortion and even impose a penalty of four years in prison for women who have a miscarriage, even though by some estimates around 30% of pregnancies might end in miscarriage through no fault of the mother. There is no male equivalent for incarcerating women in some cases for involuntary acts of her body.  

Denying women access to abortion increases the already elevated risk of death or injury for women in Latin America, especially poorer women. Lack of access to safe abortion procedures caused at least 900 deaths in Latin America in 2014, although statistics vary widely because of the illegality and stigma associated with the process. According to the Guttmacher Institute, from 2010 to 2014, only 23.6% of abortions performed in the region were deemed safe. Many, if not most, of these clandestine abortions are performed by poor or rural women who, unlike their wealthier counterparts, lack the means to access safe procedures in their own countries or elsewhere. It is very important to note the class distinctions that characterize the variable fates of women who abort illegally. According to Human Rights Watch, poorer women “suffer the most” from restrictions on abortion because they do not have the resources to access safe abortion procedures, and face increased risk of sexual violence and stigma within their communities. In this regard, the recent failure of Congressional efforts in Argentina to legalize abortion served a particular blow to Argentina’s poorer women, many of whom will continue to die as a result of abortion-related complications. Argentine Senators urging passage of the law paid tribute to some of these women during the debate.

Uruguay, Guyana, Mexico City, and Cuba have legalized abortion, and advances have been made in the past decade to allow for more abortion access: a 2012 decision by the Argentine Supreme Court legalized abortions in cases of rape or incest, and in September 2017 Chilean President Michelle Bachelet signed into law the “Tres Causales” reform, which decriminalized abortion to save the life of the mother, in cases of rape, and when the fetus is unlikely to survive (President Sebastián Piñera modified the protocol in March 2018 to allow hospitals which refused to perform abortions for religious reasons to continue to receive government funding.) But progress has been slow, and recent developments in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala (whose Congressional Women’s Commission also recently rejected a bill to decriminalize abortions for rape victims under the age of fourteen), and Brazil (whose Congress is considering a bill, PEC 181, which would make abortion totally illegal) show the region has a long way to go in terms of ensuring protection for women’s health, safety, and equality before the law.