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The Women’s Movement is in opposition

Latin America is home to some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world and women’s organizations have fought for the right to safe and legal abortion for decades.

International law increasingly backs their claims. Actually, the international legal instruments on human rights and the authorized interpretations of these instruments produced by bodies made up by qualified United Nations experts reach the conclusion that access to safe and legal abortion services is integral to the fulfilment of women’s human rights generally, including their reproductive rights and rights relating to their full and equal personhood. (From the Human Rights Watch report ’International Human Rights Law and Abortion in Latin America’ ;

If we go over the international legislation of the last few years we will see that in 1994 unsafe abortion is recognized as a serious public health problem at the International Conference of Population and Development (Cairo) : see Art. 8.25. In 1995, in the Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing) reaffirms the Cairo definitions and a paragraph on Human Rights in general is added. A recommendation to all States on the revision of their punitive legislation is included to Article 8.5 of the Cairo Conference. In 1998, the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) recognized that maternal mortality is linked to unsafe abortion and recommends it is seen to. In 1999, during the revision process of the Cairo Conference (Cairo +5) recommends that professionals should be trained to attend women in cases of legal abortion and that at the same time member countries of ECLAC commit themselves to produce health programmes for women in the framework of the sexual and reproductive rights adopted in Cairo and Beijing. In 1995, in the document of Beijing +5 the need to revise laws that criminalize the practice of unsafe abortion is pointed out.

Legal conditions of abortion in countries in Latin American and the Caribbean have not improved substantially in the last few years, although there has been significant progress such as its decriminalization in the capital of the Republic of Mexico, passed on 24 April 2007 by more than two thirds of the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District. In Colombia there has been progress in applying the reasons for the impunity of abortion : in 2006 the Constitutional Court decriminalized abortion in three special cases : when a pregnancy is a threat to the life or health of a woman, in the case of rape, and when there are malformations of the foetus that are incompatible with extra uterine life. There has also been progress in Argentina and Bolivia, among others. In countries like Ecuador and Chile there have been interesting debates on sexual and reproductive rights and the access of the population to services. In Chile, in January 2007 President Michelle Bachelet signed a decree allowing the administration of the « morning after » pill. However, on April 5 2008, the Constitutional Court of Chile announced that it will ban the sale and distribution of emergency contraception in the country’s public health facilities.

In Brazil and Uruguay, the feminist movement together with other sectors of society, is involved in the defence of the decriminalization of abortion. It is worth noting that the only countries where abortion is legal are Puerto Rico, Cuba, three countries of the French Antilles, French Guiana, Guyana and Barbados .

Abortion is entirely prohibited in El Salvador, Honduras, Saint Martin (Netherlands Antilles), Dominican Republic and lately in Nicaragua (denial of access to emergency obstetric care and therapeutic abortion in September 2007). In 27 countries there is restrictive legislation and it is allowed only under certain conditions (see information by country).

The legislation on abortion in the region reflects in part the laws of the colonizing countries, the ideology dominant at the time when it was passed, « and the changes according to the different positions of the diverse social forces, among which stands out the strong presence and influence of the Catholic Church and the conservative groups in the vast majority of Latin American countries. Although in the 70s and 80s there were changes in the legislation with respect to the equality between men and women, the right to decide over the number of children and frequency of births and about the access to family planning public services in nearly all of the countries, these changes do not seem to have had any influence on the legislation on abortion in the region. More recently, the debates, agreements and decisions about sexual and reproductive rights that have preceded or followed the international conferences held in the 90s (...) have produced some attempts to change the legislation, although there are still very few countries which have managed to make more flexible their abortion laws and provide quality services ». (From CEPED report).

To a certain extent, it could be said that gender and sexuality are the two dimensions where the influence of religious discourse is most evident. Religions that have been characterized by strong and violent confrontations among them, have found in their opposition to feminism and sexual minorities a political axis for forming alliances. Probably the most paradigmatic case is the United Nations, where the Holy See, Islamic countries and the US religious right have formed a block to confront a presumed ’invasion of radical feminism’ (See study by Juan Marco Vaggione in « La trampa de la moral única- Argumentos para una democracia laica »
The women’s movement in the region, the networks and organizations of women in all Latin America and the Caribbean have been a crucial factor in the progress made so far, in their decision over the years to join forces in order to achieve an effective defence of their rights. They have made important progress in bringing about coordination that has favourably influenced the preparatory processes of Cairo and Beijing +10 ; this solidarity network has simultaneously provided regional support to carry out national campaigns and together with other sectors of society it has learned to exert a stronger influence on its governments. There are still demands to be met :

  • that laws that penalize abortion be modified ;
  • that resolutions in penal codes allowing for safe and legal abortion be implemented fully ;
  • that which is dogma for some, not be law for all.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.