Total Abortion Bans In Latin America Risk Women's Lives

September 28, 2011

nicaragua woman doctor

Countries around the world that strictly deny women’s access to abortion, including when such access could save their lives and health, also tend to have the highest rates of maternal mortality.

Most Latin American countries criminalize abortions, forcing girls and women to resort to unsafe, clandestine abortions.  According to the World Health Organization, “Death due to complications of abortion is not uncommon, and is one of the principal causes of maternal mortality” and of an estimated 300,000 hospitalizations.

Globally, unsafe abortion – defined by the World Health Organization as termination of a pregnancy by providers lacking the necessary skills or in an environment that does not meet minimal medical standards – claims the lives of more than 47,000 women annually.  In Latin America, unsafe abortions account for 12%, or the fourth most common reason, of what would otherwise be preventable maternal deaths.

September 28th marks the 21st anniversary of the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion aimed to bring human rights and health advocates together to address the public health and human toll of unsafe abortion in the region.

Since then, the region has seen some progress.  In May 2006 Colombia’s constitutional court decided that banning abortion violates the fundamental human rights of women.  The court ordered that the procedure be available to girls and women who suffered rape or incest, in instances where the pregnancy poses a threat to their health or life, and when fetal malformations make it incompatible with life outside the womb.

Yet, in 2008, Nicaragua imposed a total criminal ban on the potentially life-saving procedure.  Since the ban came into effect, more women have died due to unsafe abortion and obstetric complications.  And in 2009, the Dominican Republic passed a constitutional amendment that likewise bans abortion in all cases.  Only 3% of the world’s countries and a handful of Latin American countries impose such absolute abortion bans.

The lives, health and wellbeing of women across Latin America are threatened by these policies.  Last year Amnesty International called on Nicaragua to provide cancer treatment to a pregnant woman and sole caregiver of her 10-year old daughter who was denied life-saving treatment because of a law that bans abortion in all circumstances.   The Nicaraguan authorities prevented doctors from providing life-saving cancer treatment to the 27-year old women because medical staff could face prosecution if they cause harm to the fetus during her treatment, even if the harm is caused unintentionally.

According to Amnesty International’s report, The Total Abortion Ban in Nicaragua, the complete ban on abortions is a serious obstacle to best practice decision-making by health care providers when dealing with obstetric complications. The law also prevents victims of violence to terminate pregnancies that resulted from rape and incest, which overwhelmingly affect girls under 17 who make up two thirds of rapes reported between 1998 and 2008 and those under 14 who account for nearly half of these cases.

Marta Solay Gonzalez, the face of the Colombian court challenge, was diagnosed with uterine cancer during the early stages of her pregnancy.  Treating her fast-spreading cancer would have saved her life but would terminate the pregnancy. No doctor dared risk prosecution to help her.  By the time the court issued its watershed decision her cancer has metastasized and she died within a year.

Even after the court decision in Colombia, women face obstacles in accessing the procedure when necessary.  The mother of a 14-year old Colombian girl who was raped and impregnated had to fight in court to get her daughter access to a termination.

The Inter-American Court on Human Rights, along with other international human rights bodies, have recognized girls’ and women’s human right to therapeutic abortions.  Amnesty International calls for the repeal of all laws that criminalize or provide for the imprisonment of women and girls who have sought or had an abortion.  Latin American women must be guaranteed basic rights to health, life, dignity and non-discrimination, and not be subject to life threatening and abusive state policies.

You can learn more about sexual and reproductive rights as part of the broader context of all human rights, as well as other issues of women’s human rights.