Abortion, the Great Debt Owed to Women by Progressive Latin American Governments

By Patricia Lee Wynne—January 9, 2020

This disastrous year closed with a historic event for Latin America: the legalization of abortion in Argentina. On December 30, the Senate approved the Law of Legal Interruption of Pregnancy, one of the most important extensions of women’s rights in the region since the right to vote was won in the middle of the last century.

The law authorizes abortion up to 14 weeks of gestation and obliges all health providers to practice it for free, voiding the law in force since 1921, which considered it a crime except in the case of rape or risk to the mother’s life .

In this way, Argentina becomes the first large country in Latin America that allows women an elementary right: to decide if they want to be mothers. Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana, French Guyana, and the Federal District and state of Oaxaca in Mexico also permit abortion at the subject’s discretion.

With this act of justice, a debt of democracy to women has been paid, in a country where half a million abortions are performed per year, which have led to the death of 3,000 women from 1983 to date.

The irruption of the youth
In 2005, the National Campaign for Legal, Safe and Guaranteed Abortion began, which unified more than 300 feminist, human rights and health organizations that had been demanding its legalization for decades.

The project presented their demands for the first time in 2007, then in 2009 and 2010, during the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015), but the president was against it. Paradoxically, President Mauricio Macri (2015-2019) enabled parliamentary discussion in 2018—although he personally also opposed approval. The vote in Congress was lost, but it paved the way for the 2020 affirmative vote.

What gave a decisive impulse to the demand for legalization of abortion were the massive mobilizations of 2016 under the slogan of Ni Una Menos against femicides, which made the fight of women against gender violence massive and led to hundreds of thousands of young people to the streets.

The actions of Ni Una Menos (“not one (woman) less”) marked the entry of adolescent girls into the campaign for the legalization of abortion, an issue that until then was mostly reserved for the vanguard of feminist movements.

Florencia Kirchner, the daughter of Cristina Fernández—who as vice president headed the Senate, this time around convinced her to vote in favor (although as vice president she only votes if there is a tie), and the same happened with numerous deputies and senators confronted by their daughters.

This is how, in a country where the Catholic Church has an enormous weight over the State—Francis, the first Latin American pope in history, is Argentine—this historic break with the Vatican was imposed.

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But this enormous triumph was also possible due to the accumulation of women’s struggles that began in the ’60s and ’70s with feminist movements such as the Manifesto of 343, promoted in France by Simone de Beauvoir, and the great mobilizations of women in Paris and the large cities in Europe and the United States, which achieved the decriminalization of abortion in their countries.

In Latin America, in the heat of the eruption of the student movement in those decades (Mexico in 1968, the Cordobazo in Argentina in 1969, the great student strikes in Colombia, the demonstrations in Chile with the triumph of Unidad Popular), women began to mobilize for their equality and their rights. But the slogan that was always above all was the legalization of abortion, although at that time, being in favor of abortion was the position of a vanguard minority.

Illegal abortion, a scourge of poor countries
To this day, the legalization of abortion remains a large outstanding debt for poor countries. Soviet Russia was the first to approve it in 1920 after the triumph of the October Revolution, then came its legalization in the ’70s in developed countries, but it remained illegal, or allowed only under strict exceptions, in almost all of Latin America and in most developing nations.

According to a large study published by The Lancet, between 2015 and 2019, there were 121 million unwanted pregnancies in the world, an average of 64 unwanted pregnancies per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 49. More than half (61%) ended in an abortion, totaling 73.3 million abortions per year, that is, 39 abortions per 1000 women between 15 and 49 years old.

However, in rich countries unwanted pregnancies were 34 per 1,000 for women between 15 and 49 years old, half the number of those in middle-income countries and only one third the number of poor countries.

Where abortion is legal, the annual rate was 11 abortions for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 49, while in other countries this figure is three to five times higher.

In those same years, in Latin America, the percentage of unwanted pregnancies that ended in abortion increased 26 percent, while in Europe and North America the percentage of unwanted pregnancies that ended in abortion fell 29 percent.

In Latin America, the figures are similar: of 349 pregnancies for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 49, almost two-thirds are unwanted, of which practically half end in abortion, according to statistics published by the Guttmacher Institute in the United States, a research organization for the advancement of sexual and reproductive health.

The women’s revolution
The advancement of women in the world and in Latin America is unstoppable. It is the “most important silent social revolution of the twentieth century,” as defined in a study by ECLAC, referring to the massive entry of women into all areas of public life, from their labor, to their political and educational participation, which brought with it enormous legal and social transformations and achievements.

Today the vertiginous advance that has taken place in a single generation seems incredible: when many of us were born, our mothers did not vote. Argentine women conquered this elementary citizen right in 1947, Peruvians in 1956 and Colombians in 1957.

Nor could our mothers divorce, or share parental authority over their children, rights that were conquered throughout the continent, especially since the return of democracy in the Southern Cone in the 1980s.

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Latin American women are at the forefront in political participation: we occupy more than a third of parliamentary seats, above the world average (24.3%) and in eight countries the figure exceeds 40%: Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, Granada, Costa Rica and Mexico, according to ECLAC. In Chile, for the first time in the world, women will have parity in the Constituent Assembly that will be elected in April of this year.

The legalization of same-sex marriage has been imposed in South America (except in Venezuela, Peru, Paraguay and Bolivia). In all countries, femicide was criminalized and laws against human trafficking were passed, and in Argentina the Gender Identity Law was passed in 2012, which is still an exception in the region.

Added to this are demographic and social changes such as the massive participation of women in education, the decrease in the fertility rate, the delay in the age to become a mother, and changes in family relationships, leading to enormous advances in freedom and independence of women.

However, real equality is still a long way off: although the labor participation of women in the region has been rising, and in 2017 was more than 50 percent, it was still 26 points below the labor participation of men, without counting the tragic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced millions of women to stay at home unemployed, or to care for children or the elderly.

Female unemployment is higher, women receive less wages, occupy the least skilled jobs and are the majority in poverty. Worse still, when racial discrimination is considered: in Brazil, of all the families registered in social programs, 88 percent were headed by women and, of these, 68 percent were headed by black women, in 2016.

And violence: in 15 countries in Latin America and 4 in the Caribbean, 4,640 women were victims of femicide in 2019, with the highest rates in Honduras, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Bolivia.

These are all the items on the agenda to achieve real equality.

The outstanding debt of Latin American progressivism
Abortion is an unresolved issue for the progressive governments of Latin America towards women.

Its legalization, in Argentina, had to wait 15 years since the launch of the National Campaign, despite the fact that from 2007 to 2015 the country was governed by Cristina Fernández.

Commenting on the Argentine Senate vote, the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, justified his decision not to promote legalization with the argument that “power structures” should not intervene in these types of decisions where “there are points of view for and against ”and proposed a referendum.

In Colombia, the former opposition presidential candidate Gustavo Petro said that the path is not prohibition, but rather that education must be improved to have a “zero abortion society,” which has earned him criticism from women’s organizations that promote legalization.

Former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa threatened to resign in 2013 if the Assembly approved the legalization.

In Nicaragua, ruled by Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega since 2007, abortion is prohibited. In Bolivia, ruled from 2005 until the 2019 coup by Evo Morales, abortion is punishable. During his tenure the causes were expanded to allow it (preventing risks to the life and health of women, fetal malformations, rape and other causes), but the provision was repealed and the old legislation was maintained.

In Venezuela, ruled by Chavismo since 1999, abortion is prohibited except when there is a danger to the woman’s health.

In Brazil, the presidents Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2013) and Dilma Rousseff (2013-2016), of the PT, did not take the opportunity to respond to the just demand of women.

The legalization of abortion in Argentina is a triumph for all Latin American women, for the young women who made the campaign massive, and for the generation that for more than half a century pushed for it against the current. It is time for Latin American governments to listen to the cry of their women and follow this historical example.


Featured image: Women attend a pro-abortion demonstration in Buenos Aires, Argentina on April 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

(Mundo Sputnik)

Translation: OT/JRE/SL

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