Tide begins to turn on abortion access in South America
In her state of the nation speech to Congress last month, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced that her government would promote legislation decriminalising abortion in cases of rape, risk to the woman's life, or in which the fetus is unable to survive outside the womb.
The move—a sharp shift for Chile, which currently has one of the region's strictest bans—reflects a growing tendency in much of Latin America to increase access to abortion, at least under certain circumstances. “In South America, there is a clear trend toward better and more liberal legislation”, Aníbal Faúndes, who chairs the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics Working Group on Prevention of Unsafe Abortion, told The Lancet.
An opposite trend has been building in Central America, however, where El Salvador and Nicaragua have banned abortion under any circumstances. In El Salvador, women have been jailed after uninduced miscarriages, charged with failing to protect their fetuses.
Even in South American countries where legislation has not eased prohibitions, there have been positive “changes in the way the law is interpreted, and guidelines published by governments in reference to how to apply the law”, according to Leonel Briozzo, undersecretary of public health in Uruguay.
The first signal came in 2006, when Colombia's Constitutional Court ruled that abortion was legal if the woman's life or health were in danger, in cases of rape or incest, or if the fetus had serious malformations that would make it impossible for it to survive outside the uterus. That was followed in 2007 by a new law in Mexico City that legalised abortion under any circumstances in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Mexico's Supreme Court upheld the law the following year. The measure applies only in Mexico City, however, and there was a backlash in about half the country's states, which amended their constitutions to define life as beginning at conception. Earlier this year, the state of Guerrero seemed poised to follow Mexico City's lead with a law that would have allowed abortion on demand within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, but the state legislature never debated the measure and the governor withdrew his support for the proposal, which advocates said was probably deemed too politically risky ahead of next year's elections.
Advocates, meanwhile, have modified their strategies, seeking new allies and more gradual change. “What we learned in 2006 with the Colombian case is that we need to work with the courts and the judges”, said Giselle Carino, universal access programme director at the International Planned Parenthood Federation. People in the women's movement “began to train themselves to engage with courts and judges and produce results that were more in alignment with international human rights frameworks”.