On September 28, feminist movements commemorated “Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Unsafe abortions are one of the principle causes of maternal fatalities in the region, where an estimated 4,140,000 abortions are carried out each year, of which 95% are done clandestinely amid dangerous conditions. Of the 78,000 women that die every year from abortions worldwide, 13% of them live in Latin America and the Caribbean. That means more than 10,000 die annually, or 28 per day, most of them women of meager economic means.1
The debate over the decriminalization of abortion cannot be simply reduced to positions of “for” or “against.” The debate must recognize that clandestine abortion is an issue of public health and social justice.
Indeed, unsafe abortion has become a grave public health threat throughout the region. Beyond deaths, it is the cause of innumerable health complications among women with serious consequences, including infertility. The failure of state authorities to address the problem through preventative measures and safe abortions forces strapped public health services to contribute scarce resources in treating these avoidable complications—never mind, the devastating impact on affected women and the families of mortal victims.
Abortion is a social justice issue because its criminalization implies discrimination toward poor women, who can’t afford to pay for safe medical procedures, which are widely available to women with more resources. Restrictive legislation has never stopped women from getting abortions; rather, it has only forced them to do so clandestinely, under unsafe conditions, or at exorbitant costs. What’s more, cultural attitudes actually blame women for unwanted pregnancies, leaving men entirely free from responsibility.
The decriminalization of abortion also has implications for human rights and democracy. According to a document titled “Call to Action 2007” released by a region-wide campaign for decriminalization, “The right to abortion is a question of human rights considering human rights are universal, inalienable and interdependent for all human beings regardless of nationality, race, sex, creed, sexual preferences or social status. Women have the right to freely decide over maternity.” Similarly, the fourth UN World Conference on Women (Beijing 1995) made the recommendation that all countries should reconsider laws that criminalize women who have had illegal abortions.
Regarding democracy, the same document emphasizes that “women should be consulted and be part of decisions. This process has been wholly ignored in the region. Society cannot continue to deny the competence of women themselves to define issues of their integrity, reproductive health, and sexuality. Relegating them with third-class political sovereignty has been the standard practice of politicians, public functionaries, the clergy, legislators and others, who, in claiming authority on such matters, have usurped women’s capacity to make decisions.”
Reform on the Agenda
The September 28 Campaign began in 1990 with a resolution from the fifth Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Forum (San Bernardo, Argentina). The same meeting also created the “Caribbean and Latin American Coordinator for the Mobilization of Abortion Rights,” a group charged with “seeking support among women in different countries who have access to such rights in practice and support them in maintaining them as well as conducting coordinated campaigns within countries and at the continental level for the purpose of ensuring the right for access to legal, non-clandestine, safe, and dignified abortion for every one of us.”
The September 28 Campaign clamors for the construction “of a democratic society in which women decide over their own bodies and lives, in which their decisions are respected and governments generate conditions that guarantee the free exercise of these rights,” adds the document.
Its objectives include the right to life, bodily integrity and personal privacy; human dignity, liberty and justice; equality and non-discrimination. It defends a secular state, democracy, as well as full and healthy lives for all women in harmony with their intimate convictions and social surroundings.
In various parts of Latin America and the Caribbean most of the legal reforms currently being considered actually propose further prohibition or outright criminalization on the interruption of a pregnancy. Some countries only allow abortion in cases of rape (or rape cases of women with mental disabilities), if there are serious fetal malformations, or if the mother’s life is in danger. But there are several cases like a recent one in Argentina in which, despite such official exceptions, hospitals or judges have prevented the procedure from taking place. Other countries don’t authorize exceptions even in extreme cases.
Last April, México City decriminalized abortions conducted during the first trimester. A woman is required to sign a form expressing she accepts the procedure voluntarily. In Nicaragua, on the other hand—despite being one of the few countries that allowed abortions for over a century—a law was passed by congress during the campaign season outlawing abortion. In Brazil, experts estimate 30% of pregnancies end in abortion, 1.4 million of these are considered unsafe. The Social and Family Security Commission of Brazil’s lower house is considering a proposal that would strike down its criminalization and provide a right to abortion. Lobbyists managed to get the proposed law shelved in 2005, but at the beginning of this year it came under reconsideration and if all goes well it will come to a vote.
Sally Burch is a frequent contributor to the Agencia Latinoamericana de Información (ALAI), where the Spanish version of this article was first published. Translated by NACLA.
1. Aborto inducido a nivel mundial, Allan Guttmmacher Institute.