In Latin America, is there a link between abortion rights and democracy?

Three-quarters of all abortions in Latin America are performed illegally, putting the woman’s life at risk. Together with Africa and Asia, the region accounts for many of the 17.1 million unsafe abortions performed globally each year, according to a new report in The Lancet, published jointly with the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy group.

Though worrying, this fact is unsurprising in a region where six countries ban abortion under all circumstances: the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname. Such complete criminalization, even when fetal termination is necessary to save a woman’s life, exists in only two other places in the world: Malta and the Vatican.

Numerous studies confirm that restrictive laws do not in any way prevent women from seeking or getting abortions. And in the vast majority of Latin American countries – including Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and, since August 2017, Chile – this medical procedure is legal, though it generally requires specific justification, such as maternal health or rape.

Not so in Central America, home to three of the eight countries in the world with total abortion bans. As I am a Costa Rican lawyer and feminist, to me, it’s no small matter that women in many neighboring countries lack access to this basic health service.

Why does this region so studiously avoid recognizing women as full individuals entitled to their own human rights? In my view, there’s a clear link in Latin America between the state of a country’s democracy and the reproductive rights of its female citizens.

Neighbors Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador are among the few countries in the world with total abortion bans. Cacahuate/Wikimedia, CC BY

Honduras: Land of inequality

In Honduras, for example, it was only after the 2009 coup d’état that ousted President Manuel Zelaya – a huge democratic setback that ushered in an era of violence – that the country passed a total ban on abortion.

Today, women must carry to term even a pregnancy that endangers their life, and emergency contraception is heavily penalized. These restrictions were reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 2012.

Despite efforts by human rights defenders and official statements by the United Nations, independent experts and NGOs like Amnesty International, there has been no material progress in advancing the reproductive rights of Honduran women.

In some ways, this is not surprising. In post-coup Honduras, human rights violations – ranging from violence and poverty to impunity – are routine fare for the entire population. Rampant gender inequality is just another symptom of this dismal situation.

Nicaragua and El Salvador: Dangerous setbacks

The situation in Nicaragua, just to the south, is similar. There, “therapeautic abortion” – the common parlance for ending a pregnancy for health-related reasons – was acceptable from 1837 until relatively recently. But starting in 2007, President Daniel Ortega, who has modified the Constitution to end term limits, began passing legal amendments to ban abortions completely, without any exceptions.

Ortega supported abortion rights during his first presidency, in the 1980s. But he has since embraced the Catholic Church’s position of strong opposition, with deadly consequences for Nicaraguan women.

In 2010, for example, a pregnant woman who went by the pseudonym of “Amelia” was refused treatment for metastatic cancer because the state ruled that the regime of chemotherapy and radiotherapy – which her doctor had urgently recommended – might trigger a miscarriage.

Nicaragua’s anti-abortion sentiment is fierce. Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ultimately issued injunctions for Amelia, but the damage was already done. She died in 2011.

Impossible though it may seem, women fare worse in El Salvador, a civil war-torn country rife with violence, unpunished crimes and criminal infiltration of the police. In 1999, El Salvador constitutionally mandated that human life starts at the moment of conception.