democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Legal abortion: a right, not a privilege

Last December 11, the Chamber of Deputies of Argentina approved the project of voluntary interruption of pregnancy. It is a great step forward to expand the debate on the legalization of abortion in Latin America.

democracia Abierta
21 December 2020, 12.01am
Women protesting in favor of the legalization of abortion in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2018.
PA Images.

Six days ago, the Argentine Chamber of Deputies approved the voluntary termination of the pregnancy project. This opens the debate, again, on the legalization of abortion in Latin America.

According to the Global Abortion Database of the World Health Organization, access to abortion in the region is restricted. Each country has its conditions and vetoes that, in the end, end up taking away women's possibility to decide about their bodies and future freely.

That is why the video of hundreds of women gathered in the Congress plaza in Argentina waving green scarves and celebrating upon hearing the final vote on the bill that seeks to give free access to voluntary termination of pregnancy up to the fourteenth week of gestation has been a trend in social networks and generated a new wave of illusion among thousands of Latin American women who dream that safe abortion is a right.

The bill received 131 votes in favor and 117 against, after a debate that lasted 20 hours. In the following weeks, it must be voted in the Senate for final approval.

Today, Argentine law allows abortion when a pregnancy poses a serious risk to the mother's health or in cases of rape. In the region, Bolivia and Colombia are the countries where the possibility of abortion is legal in more cases: if the viability of the fetus is not safe, in cases of rape, incest, and if there is any threat to the life or physical and mental health of the woman.

In other countries such as Uruguay and Cuba, the open-access law presumes that women can decide at their discretion. In Chile’s case, abortion was decriminalized only three years ago and focuses on whether a pregnancy is a threat to the woman's life.

In Costa Rica, it is only authorized to be a danger to the woman's physical health. In other more extreme contexts, such as Guatemala and Paraguay, women can have an abortion if they can prove that their life is in danger. Thus, the difference lies in who bears the burden of proof. In other words, the real debate is whether a woman can always decide whether she wants an abortion or whether she must prove that her case fits one of the grounds covered by each country's laws.

The problem with this scenario is that it authorizes individuals and institutions that are not pregnant women to certify whether those conditions are met. The result is that thousands of women decide to look for places where they can have a clandestine abortion that, in the majority of cases, does not comply with the health standards for these procedures, putting their health and lives at risk.

There are also the cases of women who decide to have these clandestine abortions without any medical supervision, but at home, with medicines or elements that could cause their death.

According to The Lancet, in a global and regional study of abortion classifications by safety, there are about 60 million abortions a year worldwide. It also states that the proportion of abortions that can be considered safe for women varies from country to country due to the degree of restriction that governs the procedure in each country.

Cases like El Salvador's, where 22 women are in prison, convicted or on trial for abortion, cannot go unnoticed. In this case, the United Nations stated that the Salvadoran Penal Code affects “disproportionately poor women.” This is key; according to an article by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), millions of women lack access to reproductive health services, which means that many have little or no power to decide whether to become pregnant.

The result is that each year, nearly 19 million women undergo unsafe abortions in a region where clandestine abortions cause almost 13 percent of all maternal deaths.

According to the World Health Organization, WHO, between 2010 and 2014, there were 25 million unsafe abortions worldwide, representing 45% of all abortions. The majority of unsafe abortions, 97%, occurred in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The organization has also emphasized that in countries where abortion is completely prohibited or permitted only to save the woman’s life or preserve her physical health, only one in four abortions is safe.

The reality is that restricting access to abortion does not reduce the number of abortions. It only endangers the most vulnerable women.

Thus, the fight over whether or not to legalize abortion moves to the level of human rights. Sexual and Reproductive Rights, SRR, includes access to information, education, contraception, and timely medical services. As with all other human rights, SRHR must be comprehensive. Likewise, in the face of moral arguments about whether or not a government should assume a person’s actions, the rule of law must guarantee its citizens’ health and life and correct social inequalities.

In the face of those who claim that abortions cause women's deaths, it is essential to clarify that abortion generates a body reaction like any medical procedure. The WHO's International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems does not register "post-abortion syndrome" as a disease.

This term, which is used to attack the legalization of abortion, was coined in the early 1990s, based on a biased U.S. study that surveyed women who claimed to have had negative abortion experiences. The truth is that what causes women to die is not abortion, but abortions performed under illegal, unsafe conditions.

In Argentina, it is estimated that more than 300,000 abortions are performed each year. And while women with access to health care can afford safe abortions, poorer women do so unsafely. So much so that of those 300,000, about 40,000 are hospitalized for complications during the procedures.

In this debate, a reference is Uruguay, where, since 2013, women can have abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The progress is evident since before the law it was estimated that there were about 30,000 clandestine abortions each year, and today, seven years later, that figure has dropped to 10,000, and only one woman has died from surgical complications during a legal termination of pregnancy.

With the vote in favor of the House of Representatives, Argentina takes a considerable step towards decriminalizing abortion and becomes a beacon for the rest of the countries that still maintain the region’s restrictions. The change since 2018, when the same law was rejected, has not been free.

Abortion is a topic of public discussion that, thanks to social protest and feminist groups in the continent, has advanced as a women's human rights issue by leaps and bounds. Now we only have to wait if the Argentine Senate fully approves the law to save thousands of lives.

Meanwhile, the collectives that defend women's rights will continue to chant the same slogan until the rulers stop turning a blind eye to the obvious: sex education to decide, contraceptives to avoid abortion, and legal abortion to avoid death.

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