As many know, and as may be unsurprising, Latin America in general is one of the more restrictive regions in the world when it comes to abortion and legal reproductive rights for women. Several countries, including Nicaragua and El Salvador, have total bans on abortion that don’t get rid of the practice, but rather leave women in a precarious state socially and medically. Several other countries allow abortion only in the case of rape, incest, and/or cases where the mother’s health is at risk. While important legal safeguards, two recent cases reveal the limits of such laws even in practice.
In Paraguay, a 10-year-old girl whose stepfather raped her is being denied an abortion. In Paraguay, the only case in which abortion is permitted is when the mother’s health is at risk. In the case of the 10-year-old girl, this is the case; yet the government has failed to act on the law, leaving the girl’s life in danger.
In neighboring Uruguay, which (partially) decriminalized abortion in 2012, a judge has refused to permit an abortion for a mentally-challenged 11-year-old girl whose half-sister’s grandfather raped her. The judge cited the girl’s “desire to maintain [the girl’s] relationship with the 41-year-old man” as a reason for his ruling. This is, simply put, appalling, and the judge’s irresponsibility here is incomprehensible. The judge tried to deflect responsibility by leaving the decision to the mother, but of course, once he issued his ruling, the mother lost any institutionally legal legitimacy she may have had, and dropped the request. As a result, an 11-year-old who doesn’t understand what is going on will give birth to a child under the (alleged) pretenses that she will carry on a relationship with a man who is 30 years her senior, a sexual predator, and in jail.
Meanwhile, in Chile, which also has a total ban on all abortions (a legacy of the Pinochet regime and something president Michele Bachelet is trying to undo), a controversial, satirical campaign on how to “accidentally” terminate a pregnancy is reigniting the debate yet again. The campaign is designed to challenge the country’s total abortion ban by reminding people that criminalizing abortion does not make it go away; it just makes it more precarious, especially for women who cannot afford to pay for safe, healthy, back-door, clandestine procedures. Indeed, data back up this latter point, as estimates of the number of clandestine abortions performed in Chile per year range from 33,000 to 160,000. Collectively, the three cases show the importance of legal reproductive rights, and how, even when such rights are acceded for certain cases, the options for safe health-care and procedures for women is still a struggle.