When religion precipitates law: Abortion in Latin America


On October 10, 2012, Uruguay passed an abortion law that was absolutely shocking to its region. So shocking, in fact, that in January 2013, 100% of doctors in some Uruguayan medical centers have chosen to opt out of it[1].

Latin America may be the worst place in the world to get an abortion[2], primarily due to the influence of the Catholic Church. After just a few minutes reading about Latin American abortion, stories of women using TV antennae to end a pregnancy, and then being jailed for it, cease to be shocking. Seven countries ban it altogether, and a few more allow it in cases when it is necessary to preserve the health of the woman. But only four, including Uruguay, “allow it with no restriction to reason”[3].

Abortion in this region, writes Time.com, is deemed worse than rape. Women are sent to prison for years for having an abortion and sometimes, just for using the morning-after pill[4]. A commonly cited horror story is that of a Peruvian girl who jumped off a roof when she was raped and impregnated, and injured her spine. Doctors refused to surgically repair her spine because they were afraid doing so would lead her to miscarry[5].

While there is no universally accepted answer to the moral or religious debate on abortion, what Latin American legislators and doctors need to keep in mind is that criminalizing abortions clearly hasn’t prevented women from having them. Apart from having the second-highest rate of abortion in the world, Latin America also has the second highest percentage of illegal abortions[6]. In countries like Venezuela, it is estimated that complications from illegal abortions lead to 16% of all maternal deaths[7]. The effect of laws instituted to prevent the death of unborn children is causing perhaps even more death of already living, breathing citizens.

Women in Uruguay engaged in a long campaign of civil protest in order to achieve the right to legal abortions. (womensenews.org)
Women in Uruguay engaged in a long campaign of civil protest in order to achieve the right to legal abortions. (womensenews.org)

In addition to the horrific ‘back-alley’ abortions, there exists in Latin America today a network of feminist organizations offering underground abortion services, mostly hotlines, such as “Skirts in Revolution”. A common drug that these hotlines inform their callers about is misoprostol; misoprostol-induced abortions, in case the woman needs to be rushed to an ER in the process, would resemble a miscarriage and save the woman from a prison sentence[8]. Hotline operators, of course, have no way of knowing what eventually happens to callers and if a call gets cut before they can finish explaining the procedure, have no way of calling anyone back.

Changes in abortion laws are exceedingly unlikely and in and of themselves, will not be enough anyway, as the refusal of doctors to follow the new Uruguayan law demonstrates. Moreover, the new law includes a mandatory appearance before a panel of health care and social workers and a five-day waiting period before a woman can decide to have an abortion. With limited and complicated access to abortion, many activists posit that women will still resort to doing it illegally. In addition, if the motto of prevention is to be applied here, the use of contraceptives will need to be encouraged, again an unlikelihood, given the stigmas around it fueled by the Catholic Church. Still, one step is better than none, and the rest of Latin America would do well to follow, and build upon, Uruguay’s encouraging example.

Nitika Khaitan ’16 is in Silliman College. As a Globalist Notebook blogger, she writes about issues regarding human and political rights in Central and South America. Contact her at nitika.khaitan@yale.edu.