20 de Marzo: Progresista, pero no hacia las mujeres

A recent article by the IPS via Upside Down World reviews the dire situation of abortion in today’s Latin America.  The article, “Abortion in Latin America — Still Illegal, Still Killing, Despite Growing Awareness,” notes that more abortions are performed in Latin America than in any other world region, and that abortion is the second leading cause of maternal mortality in Latin American countries.  Abortion-related complications are responsible for “4,000 avoidable deaths” per year.

From left: “Condom–take responsibility,” and “Abortion is not only a woman’s issue.”

By now, it should surprise no one that Latin America leads the world in numbers of abortions not despite the fact that the procedure is illegal in almost every country in the region, but likely, because of it.  Statistics have shown time and time again that criminalizing abortion tends to increase, not decrease, numbers of abortions.  While four countries do not allow the procedure under any circumstance–including to save the mother’s life–13 countries allow the procedure in very limited situations, such as in cases of rape, incest, fetal malformation, or when the woman’s health or life is at risk.  Abortion on demand is available in Cuba since 1965, and in Mexico City since 2007.

What may be surprising, however, is that abortion restrictions remain tight in Latin America despite the presence of left-wing leaders in government.  Perhaps because of political tendencies in the U.S. or in Europe–where left-wing leaders often champion progressive legislation on gender equality–many of us tend to see left-wing movements as necessarily woman-positive.  In Latin America, however, this is not so. In fact, two of Latin America’s so-called progressive administrations rolled back access to abortion in the last few years, while two of the region’s “conservative” governments liberalized abortion access.  This tendency in Latin America is not new.  Scholar Mala Htun finds that conservative military governments in Latin America passed progressive legislation on issues of divorce, abortion, and parental rights between the 1960s and 1980s, while democracies often failed to do so.

“I decide.”

Moriana Hernández, a Uruguayan sociologist quoted in this article, notes that sexism is so entrenched in Latin American society that machista attitudes cross the political spectrum.  “‘It’s easy to negotiate over the bodies of women because of that patriarchal influence,'” she says.  Because of this, the issue of abortion–of women’s right to control their own reproductive lives–is often used as a “bargaining chip” in political struggles between leftist leaders and right-wing factions of society.  Rita Segato, an Argentine anthropologist, adds that the Catholic Church opposes abortion simply to demonstrate its continued influence in Latin America, and that the institution does not truly care about defending “life.”  If it did, says Segato, it would recognize what has been proven time and time again: that criminalizing abortion increases both abortion rates and women’s deaths. Don’t believe me?  In Cuba, where abortion has been legal on demand since 1965, “the abortion rate is less than 21 per 1,000 women of reproductive age, 10 points lower than the regional average” (emphasis mine).  

Both the right and the left in Latin America need to open their eyes: decriminalizing abortion will not only guarantee women’s inalienable right to control their own bodies and save women’s lives, it will also dramatically reduce the numbers of abortions being performed, plain and simple.

A graffiti drawn by Bolivian youth from El Alto, reading, “Being a father, being a mother–leave it for tomorrow.”  The first two images in today’s post were provided by a guest photographer.


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