Abortion rights in Latin America simultaneously advance and regress

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Lucy Lorena Libreros | America - 10 March, 2022

Abortion rights are simultaneously advancing and regressing in Latin America, where at the same time as significant steps are being taken in the conquest of sexual and reproductive rights, such as the decriminalisation of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy up to 24 weeks, an obstructionism persists that in practice prevents women from exercising them to the full. the recent ruling of the Constitutional Court of Colombia decriminalising the voluntary interruption of pregnancy up to 24 weeks, an obstructionism persists that in practice prevents women from exercising these rights to the full.

Colombia is the latest country in the region to join the Green Wave that has been sweeping Latin America since Argentina passed its abortion law in December 2020 and Mexico's Supreme Court declared the criminalisation of abortion unconstitutional in September 2021.

However, several experts consulted by Efe are concerned about the difficulty of exercising this right in countries where the law regulates it but in practice it is very difficult to guarantee the performance of abortions in adequate conditions.

Abortion rights are not guaranteed

This is the opinion of Catalina Martinez Coral, spokesperson for the Just Cause Movement and regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the Center for Reproductive Rights, for whom "great restrictions for women" still persist in the region.

"It is worrying that there are six countries that maintain a total criminalisation of abortion (El Salvador, Honduras, Suriname, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua), countries where adolescents and girls cannot carry out this practice under any circumstances, not even when the pregnancy puts their lives or health at risk. when it is the result of rape", she denounces.

And this is in a region where, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute in New York, more than six million abortions are performed each year, 60% of which are unsafe.

For Martínez Coral, the panorama is very complex, "not only because it has a strong impact on women's lives as they are unable to access health services and have to seek them clandestinely, but also because of what it implies in terms of criminalisation, with cases such as that of El Salvador, where women who have wanted to exercise this right end up being tried for aggravated homicide".

With nuances varying from country to country, the fact remains that Latin American women's struggle for full access to reproductive rights remains bittersweet.

Colombia's historic breakthrough

Colombia achieved a historic breakthrough in sexual and reproductive rightslast February: in a country where some 400 women are prosecuted for having abortions each year and several thousand more are forced to go to clandestine clinics, a Constitutional Court ruling ruled that no woman can be prosecuted for terminating her pregnancy up to 24 weeks.

It thus became the Latin American country with the longest gestational period for accessing abortion services. Martínez Coral applauds this decision, as this is a country where an average of 70 women die each year due to clandestine abortions.

"This number is an under-recording, we know that many more die", adds the activist, who uses figures from the Guttmacher Institute to assure that 400,000 abortions are performed every year, 25% of which are unsafe and are carried out "without dignified access to health conditions".

In practice, the ruling of the Colombian Constitutional Court contemplates two transcendental aspects: on the one hand, "access to abortion services, which is now provided by the woman's decision alone, without having to present, as before, a certificate proving that her health was at risk or that she was a victim of sexual violence," adds Martínez Coral. victim of sexual violenceshe adds.

A second change is the one that allows women to access abortion at 24 weeks without being criminally denounced. "We know that more than 53% of the cases that exist against adolescents and girls for seeking abortion services come from the health system itself. In Colombia there are some 5,000 open cases", recalls the spokesperson for the Causa Justa Movement.

For Martínez Coral, the grounds that Colombia had until now were not being sufficient, since according to data from the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) in 2020 alone more than 4,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 14gave birth.

The most progressive

Like Colombia, several countries in the region have made progress towards protecting the right to abortion, albeit in a limited way. Argentinian women, for example, have a law that allows them to voluntarily terminate their pregnancies up to 14 weeks of gestation legally, safely and free of charge.

In Mexico - where only the state of Oaxaca and Mexico City allowed legal termination of pregnancy up to 12 weeks - the Supreme Court ruled in September last year that criminalising abortion was illegal, and recognised the right to life from the moment an individual is conceived, a ruling that set a precedent for its application in the other states of the country.

The list of countries with laws regulating abortion includes Cuba, where women won this right in 1965. Also Uruguay, which not only allows voluntary termination of pregnancy up to 12 weeks, but also promotes policies of prevention and support for women in their reproductive health, as well as Guyana, French Guiana and Puerto Rico, the latter country where there is no gestational time limit for access to abortion.

Although with more timid processes, Brazil and Chile have also included in their respective penal codes the variables of rape and non-viability of the foetus in order for women to have access to legal abortion. In the case of Chilean women, the maximum period is the first twelve weeks.

In Bolivia, incest is accepted as a ground for abortion, while in Belize the authorities take into account the socio-economic reality of the woman. Ecuador, for its part, provides for the right to voluntary termination of pregnancy on three grounds: threat to the life or health of the woman, foetal malformation and sexual assault.

From hospital to prison

The Green Wave, however, has not reached several parts of the Caribbean, South and Central America, with El Salvador and Honduras leading the list of countries that criminalise abortion in all circumstances.

Catalina Martínez Coral criticises the fact that in El Salvador "even women who have suffered obstetric emergencies (involuntary loss of pregnancy) end up being criminally prosecuted, denounced for abortion and subsequently prosecuted for the crime of aggravated homicide".

The laws are so harsh, she denounces, that many Salvadoran women, instead of receiving medical care and psychological support, are arrested and sentenced to 2 to 30 years in prison.

In Honduras, despite growing pressure from feminist groups, the Honduran Parliament upheld Article 67 of the Constitution, which rejects the termination of pregnancy and criminalises the practice altogether.

The same is true in Nicaragua, where it has been considered a crime since 2006 and where in 2017, the National Assembly succumbed to pressure from different religious sectors to prevent changes to legislation on the matter.

TheDominican Republic, which has had legal abortion on its public agenda for several years, has not achieved legal changes, however, so that this right is not admissible under any grounds.

The list of nations with the same measures is completed by Haiti, which a couple of years ago failed to achieve the necessary consensus to decriminalise abortion up to 12 weeks, as some advocacy groups wanted, and Suriname.

The social cost for girls and adolescents

The Centre for Reproductive Rights, through the Girls Not Mothers campaign - of which several regional organisations are also part - has documented the drama "of girls who are victims of rape not being able to access sexual and reproductive health services and having to face motherhood at such a young age".

According to data from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defence of Women's Rights, 12% of women in the region have suffered some form of sexual violence.

A "drama of great dimensions," says the director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the Center for Reproductive Rights, since the region has the second highest rate of pregnancies in the world, with around 18 per cent of births to children under 20 years of age, and where every year 1.5 million adolescent women between 15 and 19 years of age give birth.

"This implies dropping out of school and social and economic precariousness ", reflects Martínez Coral, who maintains that in the end, beyond the legal or medical issue, deciding on abortion means "for women to be able to make informed decisions about the first territory on which these decisions must be made: their body".

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