[News] The struggle for safe abortion in Latin America

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Oct 11 12:21:10 EDT 2007


The struggle for safe abortion in Latin America
by Jen Peirce; 
October 11, 2007

There is a slogan commonly heard among Latin 
American feminists: “The rich women abort and the 
poor women die.” Among those who fall through the 
cracks of the extreme wealth inequalities of 
Latin America, the women who die or suffer health 
problems due to unsafe abortions are invisible 
victims. Those who can afford clandestine or 
overseas abortions remain shrouded by social 
taboo, while those who cannot afford such 
measures often die from hemorrhaging caused by 
self-inflicted abortion attempts.

On September 28th, feminist activists across the 
continent marked the International Day for the 
Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America 
and the Caribbean. Their goals include calling 
for attention to unsafe abortion as a public 
health problem and for changes in access to abortion laws.

According to the 
Health Organization, 68,000 women die each year 
from unsafe abortions and 3,700,000 unsafe 
abortions occurred in Latin America alone in the 
year 2000. Despite the 
from the UN Committee on the Convention for the 
Elimination of All forms of Discrimination 
Against Women (CEDAW) that the criminalization of 
abortion constitutes a barrier to women’s right 
to health, abortion access in Latin America is 
among the most restrictive around the world.

Apart from Cuba, Guyana and Mexico City (only 
this year), legal access to abortion in Latin 
America is mostly restricted to cases of rape, 
incest, or to save the mother's life. El Salvador 
and Nicaragua eliminated even these exceptions in 
recent years, the result of high-profile 
political alliances with the official Catholic 
Church. A group of women protesting the ban at 
the central Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua, on 
September 30 faced insults and a line of police 
guards. A recent 
Rights Watch report has called the impact of the 
ban “devastating,” causing further deaths and 
also instilling a climate of fear and 
criminalization on healthcare for pregnant women in general.

In Venezuela, the country with the highest teen 
pregnancy rate in the continent, a coalition of 
feminists and sexual diversity activists are 
pushing for reforms to the constitution. 
Currently Venezuela's constitution guarantees 
parents' right to choose how many children to 
have, but defines the start of life at conception.

Dr. Asia Villegas, a member of the monitoring 
committee of 
do Pará Convention on violence against women, 
argues that the inclusion of abortion as a felony 
under the Criminal Code penalizes vulnerable 
women. Instead, she says, sanctions should target 
the causes of clandestine abortions or the 
precarious conditions that can lead to long-term 
health consequences and death, particularly among 
poor women. Although a series of constitutional 
reforms will be voted on by referendum in 
December, proposals to decriminalize abortion are so far not on the agenda.

There are no definitive statistics on deaths due 
to unsafe abortions in Venezuela, because these 
deaths are generally registered under other 
causes. Hospital sources cited by the coalition 
estimate that nearly a third of deaths among 
girls age 15-19 can be attributed to botched 
abortions. “Unsafe abortions cause rapid 
hemorrhaging, and many women have died bleeding 
in my hands,” says Dr. Alberto Waithe, a 
gynecologist and public health specialist in the city of Mérida.

Despite the major investment in basic health 
services by the Chávez government and the 
improvement in many health indicators, the 
maternal mortality ratio (96 per 100,000 live 
births in 2000, while the mortality rate for 
women of reproductive age is 27 per 1,000) has 
not shifted significantly. For Dr. Waithe, this 
suggests that “we are doing something wrong and 
something must change ­ doctors must open their minds.”

For Ana Belén Jarra, a member the feminist 
collective Pachamama, it is the role of social 
movements to push the government to protect 
reproductive rights and public health. “It is a 
historical debt owed to women, but we must raise 
consciousness among communities and politicians,” 
she says. Juramis Varela dressed up as a pregnant 
priest for the day of action to spread the 
message that “a woman’s body does not belong to 
the state, her partner, and much less to the church, so the decision is hers.”

Yet abortion remains a taboo issue in much of 
Latin America. “We must start speaking of 
abortion in the first person,” declared Diluvina 
Cabellos, the representative of the Venezuelan 
National Assembly who received the proposals for 
constitutional reform. Telling the story of her 
own clandestine abortion at the age of 17, she 
says that only by making safe abortion a priority 
of public health will there be any chance of 
stemming the tide of “too many deaths of our daughters.”

Jen Peirce is a graduate student in international 
development, currently researching gender 
equality and social movements in Venezuela. She 
has worked with community organizations promoting 
women's rights in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Gambia, and Halifax.

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