Leisha Goel is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a first-year MPP student.
On February 21st, 2022, Colombia became the fourth Latin American country to decriminalize abortion as its Constitutional Court voted to legalize abortion procedures up to the 24th week of pregnancy. Advocates for reproductive rights are thrilled with the outcome and consider this a major win for a country where only 10% of 400,000 annual abortion procedures are performed legally. However, this is just the beginning of the movement for protecting reproductive rights in Latin America.
For most people in Latin America, abortion is an unsafe, risky, and often illegal procedure with some of the most repressive abortion laws in the world existing within the region. In fact, 97% of women of reproductive age in Latin America reside in countries with restrictive abortion laws. Many countries in Latin America have criminalized abortion completely, like El Salvador, where dozens of women have been imprisoned under charges of homicide for having obstetric emergencies. In these countries, women who seek abortions either risk their lives by having an illegal abortion or, if they are lucky, find a doctor who is willing to do the procedure secretly. Neither is a safe option as illegal abortions are incredibly unsafe and have a high likelihood of going wrong and both the woman and their medical provider risk being arrested and imprisoned for up to several decades if caught. Other countries may allow abortions only if a doctor rules a pregnancy is life-threatening or occurred under extenuating circumstances, such as a pregnancy as a result of an act of sexual violence.
Guyana, Uruguay, Argentina, and now Colombia are the only countries in Latin America where abortion is legalized. Even then, these four countries have limited legalized abortions by instating gestational limits, which prevents women past a certain week of their pregnancy from having an abortion. Women can also access legal abortion services in certain states within Mexico, but the procedure is not decriminalized in the country as a whole.
Restricted and often criminalized access to abortion has become a public health crisis for Latin America, where 3 out of every 4 abortions in the region are unsafe. About 760,000 women are treated annually for physical complications from unsafe abortions and about 10 percent of annual maternal deaths are a result of unsafe abortions. The restrictions also put low-income women at a further disadvantage, as they are more likely to lack the funds to travel outside of the region for the procedure or to receive private medical treatment in case of any complications. In many cases, they are forced to go to public facilities where they risk the chance of being reported to the police.
Political Barriers to Improving Access to Abortion
The biggest barrier to legalizing abortion in Latin America is the influence of the Catholic and Evangelical churches. These institutions have had a central role in shaping the region’s cultural identity and continue to have significant religious, political, and societal influence over Latin America to this day. With an extremely powerful political arm, the Catholic and Evangelical churches have been known to ally themselves with anti-choice politicians and influence the passing of laws that further restrict reproductive freedom. This influence has become even more concerning as these churches continue to grow and multiply in Latin America.
Conscientious objection, or the right of an individual to refuse to participate in an activity that he or she considers incompatible with his or her moral, religious, philosophical, or ethical beliefs, has also made abortion more clandestine and has incentivized politicians to push for increasingly restrictive and punitive measures. In some countries, doctors can invoke conscientious objection if they feel performing a certain procedure or authorizing a specific medical treatment violates their moral, religious, or ethical beliefs.
An example of the harm that invoking conscientious objection can have on abortion rights is in Italy, where seven of every ten gynecologists invoke conscientious objection to avoid performing abortions. Though abortions are legal for the first 90 days of pregnancy in Italy, conscientious objection is used increasingly to avoid performing abortions, making it more difficult for women to find a medical provider to perform the procedure. Miscarriage rates and reports of illegal abortions have also steadily increased in correspondence as an indication of women trying to riskily terminate their pregnancies on their own, which is even more dangerous and life-threatening to women.
In many Latin American countries, legal abortions can be provided if a doctor verifies that the pregnancy is a risk to the mother, but few doctors are willing to do so. Instead, many frequently use conscientious objection to excuse themselves from providing abortion on moral grounds. However, research has shown that abortion-related conscientious objection is often misused (not out of moral, religious, or ethical beliefs) due to a lack of knowledge about abortion-related laws and policies and out of fear of legal repercussions of providing abortion. The stigma around abortion in the region makes doctors unwilling to be abortion providers. With little to no oversight on doctors using conscientious objection, this misuse can be hard to identify.
While the stigma around abortion is starting to decline in the region, it still prevails in many countries. The misguided belief that individuals who seek abortion services did not take the necessary precautions to avoid getting pregnant or that they are careless has been known to discourage medical providers from performing abortion services. The lack of information regarding abortion and the reasons the procedure is sought out, as well as the discouragement of females having agency over their bodies, allows for the stigma to persist, even in countries with more liberal abortion laws.
Some Wins Amidst the Challenges
Despite Latin America’s history of unsafe abortion and restrictions on reproductive rights, Latin Americans across the region have been speaking up and advocating for the decriminalization and legalization of abortion. The “Marea Verde,” or the Green Wave, is a women’s movement for safe and legal abortion that arose out of the many protests across Latin American countries to legalize abortion. The movement has seen results in Argentina, Mexico, and Columbia – and has no plans to stop there. The Green Wave has built a collective of abortion rights groups throughout Latin America who have been leading the charge to educate the public on abortion rights, raise awareness about restrictive laws and their implications, and challenge politicians to change the existing anti-choice laws.
Gaining its name from the green scarves activists wore while protesting in 2018 in Argentina, the movement was reminiscent of the headscarves worn by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo activists during Argentina’s last dictatorship in 1976 to 198. The Green Wave found success by focusing on the importance of women’s autonomy and protecting women from violence. The grassroots movement also focused on destigmatizing abortion and educating the people on the realities that girls and women face when forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
Though activists were pushing for the complete legalization of abortion in Colombia, they continue to remain dedicated and determined to keep the movement going. With a new bill to loosen regulations on abortion in Ecuador waiting to be signed into law and debates on the current abortion laws in Chile ongoing, the women of the movement continue to be focused on keeping their goals until all women in Latin America have access to safe and legal abortion.