Commentary Abortion

September 28th: Day for Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America

Karen Gardiner

The legality of abortion in Latin America varies from country to country. The one constant almost everywhere is the inaccessibilty of a safe, legal procedure.

The recent death of a pregnant 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic has once more drawn attention to Latin America’s claim to some of the world’s most restrictive abortion policies.

The young Dominican woman, known only as “Esperancita,” died from complications of leukemia after being forced to wait nearly three weeks to begin chemotherapy by hospital officials who had initially refused to treat her at all in fear of the life-saving treatment harming her pregnancy.

Due to an amendment in the Dominican Republic’s constitution that states that “the right to life is inviolable from conception until death,” an abortion, which may have saved her life, was out of the question.

When the constitution was amended in 2009, the Dominican Republic joined four other countries in the region where abortion is prohibited for any reason: Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. Surprisingly, despite recent advances throughout the region, including decriminalization in Mexico City, a rape exception in Argentina that passed just this year, and a trend toward more progressive governments, abortion rights have taken a step backwards in countries such as Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, where it has been fully criminalized within the last decade, and in El Salvador where abortion was criminalized in all cases as recently as 1998.  In addition, the legalization of abortion in Mexico City prompted a backlash from Mexican pro-life groups who successfully fought to amend the constitutions of 13 Mexican states to declare that life begins “at conception.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The legality of abortion in all other Latin American countries varies widely, from having no restrictions as to reason, such as in Cuba; to being allowed in cases of economic hardship or rape, such as in Uruguay; to only being permitted when it would save the life of the pregnant woman, as in Brazil. The reality in countries where some form of legal abortion exists, however, is one of limited access and, often, insurmountable obstacles such as delays in the judicial processes women are required to undergo to obtain a legal abortion.

Nevertheless, the Guttmacher Institute estimates that the annual number of abortions in Latin America increased slightly between 2003 and 2008, from 4.1 million to 4.4 million, and that 95 percent were “unsafe” according the World Health Organization definitions, which refer to abortions performed by individuals without the necessary skills, and/or in environments that do not conform to minimum medical standards.

Around one million women in Latin America and the Caribbean are hospitalized annually for complications from unsafe abortions, and the World Health Organization estimates that in 2008, 12 percent of all maternal deaths in the region were due to unsafe abortion.

This September 28th, like every past September 28th for nearly twenty years, is Día por la Despenalización del Aborto en America Latina y el Caribe (Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean), organized by la Campaña 28 de septiembre (September 28th Campaign).

La campaña is made up of activists from five regional networks and 19 countries. The day is marked by festivals and protests that aim to draw attention to la campaña’s demands, which include the right to legal, free, safe and accessible abortions; the cessation of judicial persecution and imprisonment of women who choose to abort; and measures to prevent conscientious objections in public hospitals that create an obstacle to the exercise of rights or endanger the health or lives of women. The campaign also aims to remind Latin American governments that between 10 and 30 percent of the beds of OB/GYN services in Latin America and the Caribbean are occupied by women suffering from incomplete abortion.

Updated information on the campaign’s actions throughout the region is available on their website.

Analysis Human Rights

El Salvador Bill Would Put Those Found Guilty of Abortion Behind Bars for 30 to 50 Years

Kathy Bougher

Under El Salvador’s current law, when women are accused of abortion, prosecutors can—but do not always—increase the charges to aggravated homicide, thereby increasing their prison sentence. This new bill, advocates say, would heighten the likelihood that those charged with abortion will spend decades behind bars.

Abortion has been illegal under all circumstances in El Salvador since 1997, with a penalty of two to eight years in prison. Now, the right-wing ARENA Party has introduced a bill that would increase that penalty to a prison sentence of 30 to 50 years—the same as aggravated homicide.

The bill also lengthens the prison time for physicians who perform abortions to 30 to 50 years and establishes jail terms—of one to three years and six months to two years, respectively—for persons who sell or publicize abortion-causing substances.

The bill’s major sponsor, Rep. Ricardo Andrés Velásquez Parker, explained in a television interview on July 11 that this was simply an administrative matter and “shouldn’t need any further discussion.”

Since the Salvadoran Constitution recognizes “the human being from the moment of conception,” he said, it “is necessary to align the Criminal Code with this principle, and substitute the current penalty for abortion, which is two to eight years in prison, with that of aggravated homicide.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The bill has yet to be discussed in the Salvadoran legislature; if it were to pass, it would still have to go to the president for his signature. It could also be referred to committee, and potentially left to die.

Under El Salvador’s current law, when women are accused of abortion, prosecutors can—but do not always—increase the charges to aggravated homicide, thereby increasing their prison sentence. This new bill, advocates say, would worsen the criminalization of women, continue to take away options, and heighten the likelihood that those charged with abortion will spend decades behind bars.

In recent years, local feminist groups have drawn attention to “Las 17 and More,” a group of Salvadoran women who have been incarcerated with prison terms of up to 40 years after obstetrical emergencies. In 2014, the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion) submitted requests for pardons for 17 of the women. Each case wound its way through the legislature and other branches of government; in the end, only one woman received a pardon. Earlier this year, however, a May 2016 court decision overturned the conviction of another one of the women, Maria Teresa Rivera, vacating her 40-year sentence.

Velásquez Parker noted in his July 11 interview that he had not reviewed any of those cases. To do so was not “within his purview” and those cases have been “subjective and philosophical,” he claimed. “I am dealing with Salvadoran constitutional law.”

During a protest outside of the legislature last Thursday, Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, addressed Velásquez Parker directly, saying that his bill demonstrated an ignorance of the realities faced by women and girls in El Salvador and demanding its revocation.

“How is it possible that you do not know that last week the United Nations presented a report that shows that in our country a girl or an adolescent gives birth every 20 minutes? You should be obligated to know this. You get paid to know about this,” Herrera told him. Herrera was referring to the United Nations Population Fund and the Salvadoran Ministry of Health’s report, “Map of Pregnancies Among Girls and Adolescents in El Salvador 2015,” which also revealed that 30 percent of all births in the country were by girls ages 10 to 19.

“You say that you know nothing about women unjustly incarcerated, yet we presented to this legislature a group of requests for pardons. With what you earn, you as legislators were obligated to read and know about those,” Herrera continued, speaking about Las 17. “We are not going to discuss this proposal that you have. It is undiscussable. We demand that the ARENA party withdraw this proposed legislation.”

As part of its campaign of resistance to the proposed law, the Agrupación produced and distributed numerous videos with messages such as “They Don’t Represent Me,” which shows the names and faces of the 21 legislators who signed on to the ARENA proposal. Another video, subtitled in English, asks, “30 to 50 Years in Prison?

International groups have also joined in resisting the bill. In a pronouncement shared with legislators, the Agrupación, and the public, the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Women (CLADEM) reminded the Salvadoran government of it international commitments and obligations:

[The] United Nations has recognized on repeated occasions that the total criminalization of abortion is a form of torture, that abortion is a human right when carried out with certain assumptions, and it also recommends completely decriminalizing abortion in our region.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights reiterated to the Salvadoran government its concern about the persistence of the total prohibition on abortion … [and] expressly requested that it revise its legislation.

The Committee established in March 2016 that the criminalization of abortion and any obstacles to access to abortion are discriminatory and constitute violations of women’s right to health. Given that El Salvador has ratified [the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights], the country has an obligation to comply with its provisions.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, described the proposal as “scandalous.” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director, emphasized in a statement on the organization’s website, “Parliamentarians in El Salvador are playing a very dangerous game with the lives of millions of women. Banning life-saving abortions in all circumstances is atrocious but seeking to raise jail terms for women who seek an abortion or those who provide support is simply despicable.”

“Instead of continuing to criminalize women, authorities in El Salvador must repeal the outdated anti-abortion law once and for all,” Guevara-Rosas continued.

In the United States, Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-CA) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) issued a press release on July 19 condemning the proposal in El Salvador. Rep. Torres wrote, “It is terrifying to consider that, if this law passed, a Salvadoran woman who has a miscarriage could go to prison for decades or a woman who is raped and decides to undergo an abortion could be jailed for longer than the man who raped her.”

ARENA’s bill follows a campaign from May orchestrated by the right-wing Fundación Sí a la Vida (Right to Life Foundation) of El Salvador, “El Derecho a la Vida No Se Debate,” or “The Right to Life Is Not Up for Debate,” featuring misleading photos of fetuses and promoting adoption as an alternative to abortion.

The Agrupacion countered with a series of ads and vignettes that have also been applied to the fight against the bill, “The Health and Life of Women Are Well Worth a Debate.”

bien vale un debate-la salud de las mujeres

Mariana Moisa, media coordinator for the Agrupación, told Rewire that the widespread reaction to Velásquez Parker’s proposal indicates some shift in public perception around reproductive rights in the country.

“The public image around abortion is changing. These kinds of ideas and proposals don’t go through the system as easily as they once did. It used to be that a person in power made a couple of phone calls and poof—it was taken care of. Now, people see that Velásquez Parker’s insistence that his proposal doesn’t need any debate is undemocratic. People know that women are in prison because of these laws, and the public is asking more questions,” Moisa said.

At this point, it’s not certain whether ARENA, in coalition with other parties, has the votes to pass the bill, but it is clearly within the realm of possibility. As Sara Garcia, coordinator of the Agrupación, told Rewire, “We know this misogynist proposal has generated serious anger and indignation, and we are working with other groups to pressure the legislature. More and more groups are participating with declarations, images, and videos and a clear call to withdraw the proposal. Stopping this proposed law is what is most important at this point. Then we also have to expose what happens in El Salvador with the criminalization of women.”

Even though there has been extensive exposure of what activists see as the grave problems with such a law, Garcia said, “The risk is still very real that it could pass.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Trump Weighs in on Supreme Court Decision, After Pressure From Anti-Choice Leaders

Ally Boguhn

The presumptive Republican nominee’s confirmation that he opposed the decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt came after several days of silence from Trump on the matter—much to the lamentation of anti-choice advocates.

Donald Trump commented on the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decision this week—but only after days of pressure from anti-choice advocates—and Hillary Clinton wrote an op-ed explaining how one state’s then-pending decision on whether to fund Planned Parenthood illustrates the high stakes of the election for reproductive rights and health.

Following Anti-Choice Pressure, Trump Weighs in on Supreme Court’s Abortion Decision

Trump finally broke his silence Thursday about the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week, which struck down two provisions of Texas’ HB 2 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

“Now if we had Scalia was living, or if Scalia was replaced by me, you wouldn’t have had that,” Trump claimed of the Court’s decision, evidently not realizing that the Monday ruling was 5 to 3 and one vote would not have made a numerical difference, during an appearance on conservative radio program The Mike Gallagher Show. “It would have been the opposite.” 

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“So just to confirm, under a President Donald Trump-appointed Supreme Court, you wouldn’t see a majority ruling like the one we had with the Texas abortion law this week?” asked host Mike Gallagher.

“No…you wouldn’t see that,” replied Trump, who also noted that the case demonstrated the important role the next president will play in steering the direction of the Court through judicial nominations.

The presumptive Republican nominee’s confirmation that he opposed the decision in Whole Woman’s Health came after several days of silence from Trump on the matter—prompting much lamentation from anti-choice advocates. Despite having promised to nominate anti-choice Supreme Court justices and pass anti-abortion restrictions if elected during a meeting with more than 1,000 faith and anti-choice leaders in New York City last week, Trump made waves among those who oppose abortion when he did not immediately comment on the Court’s Monday decision.

“I think [Trump’s silence] gives all pro-life leaders pause,” said the president of the anti-choice conservative organization The Family Leader, Bob Vander Plaats, prior to Trump’s comments Thursday, according to the Daily Beast. Vander Plaats, who attended last week’s meeting with Trump, went on suggest that Trump’s hesitation to weigh in on the matter “gives all people that are looking for life as their issue, who are looking to support a presidential candidate—it gives them an unnecessary pause. There shouldn’t have to be a pause here.”

“This is the biggest abortion decision that has come down in years and Hillary Clinton was quick to comment—was all over Twitter—and yet we heard crickets from Donald Trump,” Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, said in a Tuesday statement to the Daily Beast.

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, expressed similar dismay on Wednesday that Trump hadn’t addressed the Court’s ruling. “So where was Mr. Trump, the candidate the pro-life movement is depending upon, when this blow hit?” wrote Hawkins, in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. “He was on Twitter, making fun of Elizabeth Warren and lamenting how CNN has gone negative on him. That’s it. Nothing else.”

“Right now in the pro-life movement people are wondering if Mr. Trump’s staff is uninformed or frankly, if he just doesn’t care about the topic of life,” added Hawkins. “Was that meeting last week just a farce, just another one of his shows?”

Anti-choice leaders, however, were not the only ones to criticize Trump’s response to the ruling. After Trump broke his silence, reproductive rights leaders were quick to condemn the Republican’s comments.

“Donald Trump has been clear from the beginning—he wants to overturn Roe v. Wade, and said he believes a woman should be ‘punished’ if she has an abortion,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which has already endorsed Clinton for the presidency, in a statement on Trump’s comments. 

“Trump’s remarks today should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who believes women should have access to safe, legal abortion. Electing Trump means he will fight to take away the very rights the Supreme Court just ruled this week are constitutional and necessary health care,” continued Laguens.

In contrast to Trump’s delayed reaction, presumptive Democratic nominee Clinton tweeted within minutes of the landmark abortion rights decision, “This fight isn’t over: The next president has to protect women’s health. Women won’t be ‘punished’ for exercising their basic rights.”

Clinton Pens Op-Ed Defending Planned Parenthood in New Hampshire

Clinton penned an op-ed for the Concord Monitor Wednesday explaining that New Hampshire’s pending vote on Planned Parenthood funding highlighted “what’s at stake this election.”

“For half a century, Planned Parenthood has been there for people in New Hampshire, no matter what. Every year, it provides care to almost 13,000 people who need access to services like counseling, contraception, and family planning,” wrote Clinton. “Many of these patients cannot afford to go anywhere else. Others choose the organization because it’s the provider they know and trust.”

The former secretary of state went on to contend that New Hampshire’s Executive Council’s discussion of denying funds to the organization was more than “just playing politics—they’re playing with their constituents’ health and well-being.” The council voted later that day to restore Planned Parenthood’s contract.

Praising the Supreme Court’s Monday decision in Whole Woman’s Health, Clinton cautioned in the piece that although it was a “critical victory,” there is still “work to do as long as obstacles” remained to reproductive health-care access.

Vowing to “make sure that a woman’s right to make her own health decisions remains as permanent as all of the other values we hold dear” if elected, Clinton promised to work to protect Planned Parenthood, safeguard legal abortion, and support comprehensive and inclusive sexual education programs.

Reiterating her opposition to the Hyde Amendment, which bans most federal funding for abortion care, Clinton wrote that she would “fight laws on the books” like it that “make it harder for low-income women to get the care they deserve.”

Clinton’s campaign noted the candidate’s support for repealing Hyde while answering a 2008 questionnaire provided by Rewire. During the 2016 election season, the federal ban on abortion funding became a more visible issue, and Clinton noted in a January forum that the ban “is just hard to justify” given that restrictions such as Hyde inhibit many low-income and rural women from accessing care.

What Else We’re Reading

Politico Magazine’s Bill Scher highlighted some of the potential problems Clinton could face should she choose former Virginia governor Tim Kaine as her vice presidential pickincluding his beliefs about abortion.

Foster Friess, a GOP mega-donor who once notoriously said that contraception is “inexpensive … you know, back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly,” is throwing his support behind Trump, comparing the presumptive Republican nominee to biblical figures.

Clinton dropped by the Toast on the publication’s last day, urging readers to follow the site’s example and “look forward and consider how you might make your voice heard in whatever arenas matter most to you.”

Irin Carmon joined the New Republic’s “Primary Concerns” podcast this week to discuss the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt on the election.

According to analysis from the Wall Street Journal, the popularity of the Libertarian Party in this year’s election could affect the presidential race, and the most likely outcome is “upsetting a close race—most likely Florida, where the margin of victory is traditionally narrow.”

The Center for Responsive Politics’ Alec Goodwin gave an autopsy of Jeb Bush’s massive Right to Rise super PAC.

Katie McGinty (D), who is running against incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey (R) in Pennsylvania, wrote an op-ed this week for the Philly Voice calling to “fight efforts in Pa. to restrict women’s access to health care.”

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled against an attempt to restore voting rights to more than 20,000 residents affected by the state’s law disenfranchising those who previously served time for felonies, ThinkProgress reports.

An organization in Louisiana filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of the almost 70,000 people there who have previously served time for felonies and are now on probation or parole, alleging that they are being “wrongfully excluded from registering to vote and voting.”