When the Dominican Republic’s
National Assembly voted in April 2009 to amend its constitution to include
a right to life beginning at conception, the country continued a troubling
trend among Latin American jurisdictions toward virtually eliminating
women’s recourse to safe abortion care. Under Dominican law, doctors
who perform abortions – and women who obtain them – face harsh penalties,
including prison sentences.
The constitutional amendment
was introduced by President Leonel Fernández and was widely supported
by the national assembly. The measure echoes similar changes enacted
at the state
level in Mexico,
where 12 states have recently adopted constitutional amendments declaring
that life begins at conception. These amendments – which essentially
aim to preempt any liberalization of existing abortion laws and may
even prohibit abortions that had previously been legal, for instance
in cases of rape – appear to be a backlash against the 2007 legalization of first-trimester
abortion in Mexico City.
These moves follow the criminalization
of abortion under all circumstances by Nicaragua in 2006, and
El Salvador in 1998. In 2007, both Humans
Right Watch and Ipas issued reports documenting the deaths
of women whose lives would have been saved had therapeutic abortion
This trend toward draconian
abortion restrictions – banning the procedure outright in places where
it was already highly restricted – ignores strong evidence from Latin
America and other parts of the world showing that abortion rates are
often as high, or higher, in countries where abortion is highly restricted
as in those where it is broadly legal.
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For example, Mexico’s abortion
by 33% (from 25
to 33 procedures per 1,000 women aged 15-44) between 1990 and 2006,
despite highly restrictive policies. Further, Mexico’s rate is more
than 40% higher than the U.S. abortion rate (19
abortions per 1,000 women),
even though the procedure is broadly legal in the United States. Another
key difference between the two countries is that abortion is a very
safe procedure for U.S. women, while it is often dangerous for Mexican
Global data likewise show that
abortion restrictions do not lead to low abortion rates. A worldwide study on abortion conducted by the Guttmacher
Institute and the World Health Organization (WHO) found that abortion
rates are lower in regions such as Western Europe (12 abortions per
1,000 women), where abortion is largely legal, than in developing regions
such as Latin America (31 abortions per 1,000 women), where abortion
is largely illegal.
The worldwide data also underscore
that abortion restrictions significantly diminish the safety of procedures.
Where laws are restrictive, women-especially those who are poor-are
forced to seek clandestine and unsafe abortions, which often endanger
their health. According to the Guttmacher-WHO study, nearly all abortions
(92%) in developed countries are safe, while more than half (55%) in
developing countries are unsafe. Almost all abortion-related deaths
in the world occur in developing countries. In Latin America, unsafe
abortion is one of the main causes of maternal mortality. Ensuring access
to safe and legal abortion would greatly mitigate the suffering and
lost productivity caused by unsafe procedures.
Ultimately, however, it is
important to remember that behind nearly every abortion there is an unintended
pregnancy. If Latin American policymakers truly want to reduce their
countries’ abortion rates, they must focus their attention on improving
knowledge about and access to a wide range of family planning methods.
Draconian abortion restrictions will do nothing to better the lives
of women in the Dominican Republic, Mexico or any other country in the