Find in Blog
The Fight Will Not Be Easy, But I Do Not Fear Threats
Every year, almost four million women and girls in Latin America risk their lives by having an abortion that is illegal and unsafe. Latin America has the dubious distinction of having the most restrictive laws against abortion in the world—and also the highest incidence of unsafe abortion. The direct consequence of this grave combination is the deaths and serious health complications of millions of women.
One in eight maternal deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean are caused by unsafe abortion. This brutal situation only persists because most of its victims are young and poor women. Our region's growing economic inequality creates a situation that—to use a Caribbean colloquialism—is like a "two-blade machete." Restrictive laws prevent poor women and young people from relying on the public health system to end a pregnancy, while lack of financial means blocks access to health professionals who could safely perform an abortion.
We know the cost of these restrictive policies in human lives and financial resources. And fortunately, we have achieved several notable successes recently.
In 2006, Colombia decriminalized abortion in three circumstances: in cases where the pregnancy endangers a woman's life or health, in cases where the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, and in cases of severe fetal malformation. This was a watershed moment for Colombia, and a major step forward for the region.
The following year, Mexico City took abortion rights a step further by decriminalizing abortion—up to twelve weeks of pregnancy—at a woman's request. In 2012, Uruguay legislators also approved a law decriminalizing abortion during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy (or the first fourteen weeks in cases of rape), and Brazil also lifted its ban in cases of anencephaly.
We secured the most recent victory at the first session of the Regional Conference on Population and Development, where representatives of 38 countries adopted an historic agreement—the Montevideo Consensus—recognizing that abortion restrictions don't reduce the number of abortions and increase rates of maternal mortality and morbidity. The agreement urges governments to “consider amending their laws, regulations, strategies, and public policies relating to the voluntary termination of pregnancy in order to protect the lives and health of women and adolescent girls, to improve their quality of life, and to reduce the number of abortions."
Despite these victories, there have been setbacks also.
In 2006, Nicaragua joined El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and Chile to become one just five countries in the world that prohibit abortion completely. And after the Mexico City victory, more than half of the states outside of the Federal District enacted laws against abortion, complicating the possibility of a favorable change to Mexico's national policy.
It's important to understand that there is no single strategy that will ensure access to legal and safe abortion. We must use multiple strategies that work together if we hope to move abortion rights forward. Legalization is important, but it does not preclude harm reduction tactics or the expansion of existing legislation. The presentation of cases before national and international courts is important, but those must be complimented by the involvement of health professionals who are able to speak to the process of service delivery.
IPPF/WHR works to reduce the need for abortion by ensuring that all people have access to the sexual and reproductive health information and services they need to prevent unplanned pregnancies. Yet, this does not eliminate the need for safe and legal abortion. Throughout the region, we work with our Member Associations to increase women’s accessto safe and legal abortion by generating new evidence, implementing effective national and international advocacy, providing high-quality and affordable services, and reducing stigma.
After more than sixty years of experience, we have learned several lessons: we must work in a coordinated manner and establish strategic alliances with health professionals, policymakers, lawyers, media, faith leaders, and Ministries. For example, the decriminalization of abortion in Mexico City was the result of work carried out by a coalition of health professionals, lawyers, and women's rights organizations who advocates for access to safe abortion services.
However, the struggle does not end with legalization. In many countries—including the United States—laws that permit abortion are on the books, but remain unfulfilled in the lives of many women. Abortion rights that are recognized on paper must have an impact on lived reality.
Finally, we must be creative in combatting those who oppose sexual and reproductive rights. We must throw a spotlight on religious interpretations that support women's right to choose and also offer people a secular philosophy of good living. When religions repress and punish sexuality, it creates a stigma that prevents acceptance and is also a barrier to care.
The struggle for safe and legal abortion must be a struggle for sexual rights. We are fighting for the right to sexual autonomy without condemnation or discrimination. I have no illusion that the fight will be easy, but I do not fear threats against women's lives and freedom. This is a cause that deserves our dedication.