Latin American countries consider relaxing harsh anti-abortion laws

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet discussing her proposed abortion measure at U.N. Women in 2015. (Credit: UN Women/Flickr)

Several Latin American countries are considering relaxing their laws on abortion, including El Salvador and Chile, which have some of the world’s strictest legislation on the procedure.

The Guardian reported that in El Salvador, momentum is building around a parliamentary bill that would loosen a law that has restricted abortion under all circumstances since 1998.

The change would allow abortion in cases of rape or human trafficking; when the fetus in unviable; or to protect the pregnant woman’s health or life.

“It smells and feels like change,” said Sara García, a campaigner with the Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, to the Guardian. “Politicians must make amends for the damage done to thousands of women … there is no going back.”

Meanwhile, in South America, Chile’s congress is close to passing a bill that would reverse one of the last acts of Pinochet’s government, which banned it under all circumstances in 1989.

If approved, the bill would permit the procedure in cases of fetal unviability, threat to the mother’s life and cases of rape. El Día reported that the legislation was approved in Chile’s Senate in January, and is being discussed in Congress this month.

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El Salvador and Chile join Honduras, Nicaragua, Malta and the Vatican as the only six countries in the world that criminalize abortion under all circumstances.

Even in some Latin American countries that allow abortions, politicians are mulling over more liberal legislation on the procedure. La Página reported that Bolivia, which already permits abortion in cases of rape, incest and threat to the mother’s life, is considering a legal reform that would decriminalize the procedure for women “in a situation of homelessness or extreme poverty,” who lack the means to support their family, and have three or more children.

The change would also permit abortion at any stage of pregnancy when there is a risk to the mother’s life, when there is a suspected disability, and when a young girl becomes pregnant because of rape or incest.

Vatican Radio reported that Bolivian bishops have decried the proposed change, appealing to legislators “to defend the right to life, which is seen as seriously threatened by this proposal for reform.”

“As the Church, we cannot accept these premises,” Bishop Aurelio Pesoa Ribera, the secretary general of the Bishop’s Conference, said earlier this month. “The state has the obligation to implement public policies aimed at improving the lives of people and policies of support to pregnant woman, as well as violence prevention.”

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While such resistance is commonplace across the deeply Catholic region, reproductive rights advocates argue that criminalizing abortion has yet to stop women from having the procedure. According to figures by the World Health Organization, more than 35,000 women obtain clandestine abortions in El Salvador every year, and some 65,000 illegal abortions take place annually in Guatemala, where abortion is legal – if only when the mother’s life is in danger.

Nearly all of these unsafe, back-alley abortions occur in developing countries, and cause unnecessarily high rates of medical complications and maternal mortality. Women and girls who survive such procedures can face years of imprisonment under charges of attempted murder.

In El Salvador, such sentences have even been applied to women who suffer miscarriages and premature births – which authorities have notoriously treated as suspected abortions, even without evidence.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com