The Lesson We Refuse to Learn: Restrictive Abortion Policies Do Not Work

Haydee Morales

Severe restrictions do not prevent abortion. They do not protect anyone.  Instead they place women’s lives at risk. And it’s high time we put an end to that.

Last week, the activist group Centro Las Libres drew attention to six women serving 25 to 30 year prison sentences in the Mexican state of Guanajuanto. All six were charged, and convicted, of homicide. The reason? All six, in some form, terminated a pregnancy.

This situation is not unique to Mexico. All across Latin America and the Caribbean, countries have banned or criminalized the procedure with very few, and in some cases no exceptions.

Yet, Instead of reducing the number of abortions, these draconian laws are simply forcing the procedure underground, making it unsafe and all too often deadly.

Severe restrictions do not prevent abortion. They do not protect anyone.  Instead they place women’s lives at risk. And it’s high time we put an end to that.

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Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have banned the procedure outright, even when an abortion is necessary to save a woman’s life. Other Latin American and Caribbean countries severely restrict the procedure with very limited exceptions, such as to preserve a woman’s life (Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela), health (Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay), or in cases of rape or incest. Only Cuba, Guyana and Puerto Rico have legalized the procedure completely.

Yet, according to the most recent data from the Guttmacher Institute, women in Latin America and the Caribbean are undergoing 4.1 million abortions each year, the majority of which – 3.9 million – are unsafe. So unsafe that, according to IPAS, the international women’s health organization, thousands of women in the region are dying each year from complications related to unsafe abortions.

No matter how you feel about abortion, the truth of the matter is that restrictions on abortion don’t change the reasons women have them.

Instead they make women feel isolated and alone, driving them to ever more desperate measures. The jailing of these six women in Guanajuanto sends a message: and that message is that should you find yourself pregnant and scared, don’t dare get caught.

How many more women will have to be jailed, or die before we realize that these strict policies aren’t working? For how much longer will we have to watch as unrealistic legislation is imposed on women’s lives and bodies – legislation that is dramatically out of touch with women’s realities? For each woman convicted to a 30 year jail sentence, imagine how many more will die as the result of taking unsafe medication or undergoing an dangerous procedure, all in the hopes of terminating a pregnancy?

For the sake of the women of Latin America and the Caribbean, we must work to reduce maternal deaths from unsafe abortion and advance women’s reproductive health and rights. We must promote a comprehensive abortion care approach that takes into account the various factors that influence a woman’s individual health needs—both physical and mental—as well as her personal circumstances and her ability to access services. We must work to end the criminalization of abortion in the region.

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