What is the State of Abortion Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean?

Mandy Van Deven, Online Administrator

January 22nd marks the 39th anniversary of one of the most significant legal decisions of the 20th century, Roe v. Wade. This landmark ruling from the United States Supreme Court legalized abortion and changed the course of history for women in this country. Yet women in Latin America and the Caribbean continue to struggle for this basic reproductive right.

According to a report released by the Guttmacher Institute this week, 95% of abortions in Latin America are unsafe. In places where abortion is illegal, women often turn to inadequately trained practitioners who employ unsafe techniques or attempt to self-induce abortion using dangerous methods. In Latin America and the Caribbean, nearly one million women are hospitalized each year because of complications from unsafe abortion, and the World Health Organization estimates that one in eight maternal deaths in the region result from unsafe abortion. Poor and rural women are disproportionately affected.

Fear of legal consequences, social stigma, high cost, and lack of access to trained health professionals are major barriers to obtaining safe abortions. Banning abortion does not reduce the numbers of women who attempt it; in fact, the abortion rate is much higher where it is illegal.

Despite these disturbing facts, only 6 of the 34 countries in the region allow abortion without restriction. These countries account for less than 5% of the region’s women ages 15–44.

Over the last decade, gains have been made throughout the region to address unsafe abortion and advocate for decriminalization. In 2007, for example, the Mexico City government lifted the ban on abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. IPPF/WHR's Member Association in Mexico, MEXFAM, plays a leading role in providing safe abortion services to women and adolescents. In addition to providing legal abortion services in Mexico City, MEXFAM also works to reduce the public health impact of unsafe abortion in states where the law is more restrictive. MEXFAM's work to reduce maternal mortality was highlighted just last month by ABC's "20/20."

Nearly half of sexually active young women in Latin America and the Caribbean have an unmet need for contraception. Fulfilling this need will not only reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies, but also empower women by giving them the freedom to choose when and if they have children. Fulfilling the unmet need for contraception worldwide would avert 188 million unintended pregnancies, which would in turn result in 112 million fewer abortions.

Meeting the unmet need for sexual and reproductive health services helps create healthier communities and is a crucial step towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

Image from The World's Abortion Laws Map 2011

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