No Easy Answers: Safe Abortion in Latin America

Andrea Lynch

Andrea Lynch recently returned from a year working on reproductive health issues in Nicaragua and has unique perspective on TIME Magazine's extensive look at abortion laws in Latin America.

There’s an excellent article in the current issue of TIME magazine on abortion in Latin America, and it does a terrific job of describing the political and public health drama that currently surrounds women’s reproductive rights in the region.

The landscape is complex, to say the least. Across the region, legal abortion is highly restricted in most countries, completely banned in a handful (Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua), and safe and legal with few restrictions in an even smaller handful (Cuba and Guyana). Despite this legal diversity, however, abortion is widely practiced throughout the region. According to the Guttmacher Institute, over 4 million women in Latin America have abortions every year, often at the hands of unskilled, unlicensed providers. An estimated 5,000 women don’t survive the experience, and 800,000 wind up in the hospital with complications, often facing additional abuse. Worldwide, unsafe abortion is responsible for 13 percent of all pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths, but in Latin America, it causes a full 20 percent. So, like it or not, abortion is an issue.

On the one hand, the past few years have seen great victories for women’s health. In 2006 in Colombia, for example, the Constitutional Court liberalized that country’s highly restrictive abortion laws, arguing in a landmark decision that such laws violated women’s human rights. And earlier this year, the Mexico City Legislative Assembly decriminalized abortion up to 12 weeks in Mexico’s federal district. But the past few years have also brought major setbacks—last fall, the Nicaraguan National Assembly voted to criminalize abortion under any circumstances (including in cases of rape or incest, or when a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life or health), and so far, newly elected President Daniel Ortega has stood by the Assembly’s vote, even as pregnant women die. In Uruguay, reproductive rights advocates—backed up by 63 percent of the public—came within inches of decriminalizing abortion up to 12 weeks in 2004. But lately, things have taken a turn for the worse, with left-wing President Tabaré Vázquez declaring in 2006 that if Uruguayan legislators made any further attempts to loosen that country’s abortion restrictions, he would dissolve both houses of congress. Democracy incarnate! Vázquez’s gauntlet toss kind of reminds me of the Chilean parliament’s flat-out rejection of debate on a measure that would have legalized abortion up to 12 weeks in that country, which has some of the most restrictive reproductive health laws in Latin America, coupled with one of the highest abortion rates (between 100,000 and 200,000 Chilean women seek abortions every year, and over a third of pregnancies end in abortion). Coincidence? I think not.

As the TIME article points out, the loudest voices of Latin America’s New Left may be willing to speak out on a number of controversial issues, but women’s reproductive rights isn’t one of them. In such a charged political landscape, you can’t really blame them: When Chilean president Michelle Bachelet defended young women’s right to emergency contraception (EC) as a means to decrease Chile’s high rate of teen pregnancy, for example, the Church called her a totalitarian—and that was just contraception. But it’s still distressing to observe that despite the magnitude of Latin America’s unsafe abortion epidemic, and despite the historic role that feminists have played in left-wing social and political movements across the region, contemporary left-wing poster boys like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, have more or less sold out when it comes to women’s reproductive rights—even though the restrictive abortion laws those men valiantly defend and augment are themselves vestiges of the same colonialism and imperialism that Chavez, Ortega, and Morales have made their names opposing. This is an unfortunate situation, since it’s going to be hard to accomplish abortion reform without support from Latin America’s leaders.

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That said, I don’t really think that political leadership is what’s going to turn the tide on abortion in Latin America. Instead, as the TIME article suggests, and as many members of the feminist and women’s movements across the region already know, a deeper social and cultural conversation is needed. Such a conversation would explore the contradictions of societies where despite the illegality of abortion, rich women can obtain safe abortions at the drop of a hat, while poor women and women living in rural areas continue to suffer and die at the hands of unskilled providers. It would explore what is going on inside the heart and the head of a woman marching against therapeutic abortion who has herself had one or more abortions. It would explore the contradictions of a Church that allegedly places the sanctity of life above all else, but that stands by while pregnant women with ectopic pregnancies, reproductive cancers, dangerous miscarriages, and other life-threatening conditions are allowed to die on the operating table, orphaning their children—a Church that excommunicates everyone involved in helping a 9-year-old girl and an 11-year-old girl obtain legal abortions, but fails to reprimand the men who raped them. And it would explore the cultural diversity of Latin American attitudes about abortion—attitudes that often fail to fit into a White North American or European abortion-rights paradigm—as well as how the legacy of sterilization abuse and coercive family planning pursued by the United States in the same region only a few decades ago continues to shape the abortion discussion.

This conversation will take time, but it will be time well spent. Based on my experience in Nicaragua, I agree with the Bolivian feminist quoted in the TIME article, who explains that “if you ask the average person in the street, they will probably say they are against” liberalizing abortion laws. But if you ask an average person in the street if they think their mothers, sisters, and daughters deserve to die because abortion is illegal, you can expect a slightly different answer. If you’re looking for reality, after all, sometimes all you need to do is go a little deeper.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats: ‘Open the Big Tent’ for Us

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Democrats for Life of America gathered Wednesday in Philadelphia during the party’s convention to honor Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for his anti-choice viewpoints, and to strategize ways to incorporate their policies into the party.

The group attributed Democratic losses at the state and federal level to the party’s increasing embrace of pro-choice politics. The best way for Democrats to reclaim seats in state houses, governors’ offices, and the U.S. Congress, they charged, is to “open the big tent” to candidates who oppose legal abortion care.

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

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Democrats for Life of America members repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Republicans, reiterating their support for policies such as Medicaid expansion and paid maternity leave, which they believe could convince people to carry their pregnancies to term.

Their strategy, however, could have been lifted directly from conservatives’ anti-choice playbook.

The group relies, in part, on data from Marist, a group associated with anti-choice polling, to suggest that many in the party side with them on abortion rights. Executive Director Kristen Day could not explain to Rewire why the group supports a 20-week abortion ban, while Janet Robert, president of the group’s board of directors, trotted out scientifically false claims about fetal pain

Day told Rewire that she is working with pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both from New York, on paid maternity leave. Day said she met with DeLauro the day before the group’s event.

Day identifies with Democrats despite a platform that for the first time embraces the repeal of restrictions for federal funding of abortion care. 

“Those are my people,” she said.

Day claimed to have been “kicked out of the pro-life movement” for supporting the Affordable Care Act. She said Democrats for Life of America is “not opposed to contraception,” though the group filed an amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court cases on contraception. 

Democrats for Life of America says it has important allies in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Joe Manchin (WV), and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL), along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (MI), serve on the group’s board of advisors, according to literature distributed at the convention.

Another alleged ally, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), came up during Edwards’ speech. Edwards said he had discussed the award, named for Casey’s father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened up a flood of state-level abortions restrictions as long as those anti-choice policies did not represent an “undue burden.”

“Last night I happened to have the opportunity to speak to Sen. Bob Casey, and I told him … I was in Philadelphia, receiving this award today named after his father,” Edwards said.

The Louisiana governor added that though it may not seem it, there are many more anti-choice Democrats like the two of them who aren’t comfortable coming forward about their views.

“I’m telling you there are many more people out there like us than you might imagine,” Edwards said. “But sometimes it’s easier for those folks who feel like we do on these issues to remain silent because they’re not going to  be questioned, and they’re not going to be receiving any criticism.”

During his speech, Edwards touted the way he has put his views as an anti-choice Democrat into practice in his home state. “I am a proud Democrat, and I am also very proudly pro-life,” Edwards told the small gathering.

Citing his support for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana—which went into effect July 1—Edwards claimed he had run on an otherwise “progressive” platform except for when it came to abortion rights, adding that his policies demonstrate that “there is a difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life.”

Edwards later made clear that he was disappointed with news that Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization works to elect pro-choice women to office, was being considered to fill the position of party chair in light of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.

“It wouldn’t” help elect anti-choice politicians to office, said Edwards when asked about it by a reporter. “I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know the person, I just know that the signal that would send to the country—and to Democrats such as myself—would just be another step in the opposite direction of being a big tent party [on abortion].” 

Edwards made no secret of his anti-choice viewpoints during his run for governor in 2015. While on the campaign trail, he released a 30-second ad highlighting his wife’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy after a doctor told the couple their daughter would have spina bifida.

He received a 100 percent rating from anti-choice organization Louisiana Right to Life while running for governor, based off a scorecard asking him questions such as, “Do you support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?”

Though the Democratic Party platform and nominee have voiced the party’s support for abortion rights, Edwards has forged ahead with signing numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation into law, including a ban on the commonly used dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure, and an extension of the state’s abortion care waiting period from 24 hours to 72 hours.

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

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Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.