Argentina entered the new year with the national legalization of abortion, making it the sixth and most populace Latin American country to decriminalize pregnancy termination. Argentina joined the relatively small group of pro-abortion countries in the primarily Catholic region of the world, abolishing section 86 of its 1921 criminal code that only allowed for legal abortions in the case of rape and if the pregnancy was health risk-averse to the mother. As Pope Francis’s birthplace, Argentina’s transition towards legalizing abortion marks a significant societal shift within Latin America towards expanding women’s reproductive rights. The 1 January 2021 vote to legalize abortion followed years of campaigning by woman’s rights groups, with the movement for legal abortion becoming particularly widespread throughout the country after a series of brutal femicides, including the murder of a 14-year-old pregnant girl in 2015.
Lawmakers first proposed legal abortion legislation in 2008. However, at the time, it was primarily shunned by lawmakers who thought supporting such a bill would negatively affect their political careers. In 2018, the legislation was passed to the Senate and narrowly lost by seven votes with three abstentions while Argentina was under President Mauricio Macri’s leadership, who did not support the measure. The bill was able to gain a political grounding in late 2019 when the now current leftist president of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, was elected into office and publicly championed support for legalizing abortion. Following the Senate’s vote on the legislation, Alberto Fernández vocalized his support, “Safe, legal and free abortion is the law,” Fernández said on Twitter, “today we are a better society.”
The new abortion legislation allows for the termination of pregnancies within 14 weeks of conception, removing Argentina’s prior exemption based law regarding abortion rights. Previously, a woman that was found guilty of consenting to abortion or performing a self-induced abortion could face up to 4 years in prison and physicians up to 15 years. The criminalization of abortion violates a women’s reproductive rights in several ways as it reduces public information on the legal grounds for abortion, invites health facilities to impose unnecessary obstacles to abortions such as the requirement that parents or partners’ consent to the abortion or contraceptive, imposes arbitrary waiting periods by healthcare facilities, and can require police reports or a court order to proceed with abortions. Rather than reducing the overall number of abortions in a country, criminalization of abortion results in the increased use of clandestine abortion practices that put women at risk for increased health complications and higher levels of abortion morality.
Legalizing abortion significantly reduces the use of clandestine abortion practices, which before this bill accounted for the majority of the approximately 500,000 abortions that occur annually within Argentina. Illegal abortions hold higher risks for health complications, with Human Rights Watch reporting that 39,000 women and girls were hospitalized in Argentina due to problems from abortions and miscarriages in 2016. Out of those 39,000, 5,816 were girls between the ages of 15 to 19, and 348 were 10 to 14-year-olds. Moreover, Argentina’s Ministry of Health reported in 2018 that 35 women died from medical issues related to abortions. For countries that have legalized abortion, the period immediately following its decriminalization witnessed a reduction in abortion-related complications and deaths as safer options become available to women wishing to terminate their pregnancies.
Although Argentina’s transition towards legal abortion acts as a significant step towards expanding women’s reproductive rights in Latin America, most states in the region retain abortion criminalization policies. With Argentina’s addition, six countries in Latin America have legalized abortion, with Argentina being the most populace of them all. Argentina’s decriminalization of abortion will increase the proportion of women in Latin America and the Caribbean with access to legal abortions from 3% to 10%.
However, of these six countries with legalized abortion, they are home to only 29 million of the region’s 326 million women. Outside of these countries, most abortions occur through clandestine practices, with US-based reproductive health research organization, the Guttmacher Institute, reporting that an estimated 29% of pregnancies in Latin America and the Caribbean ended in abortion from 2015 to 2019. Furthermore, The World Health Organization said that 3 out of 4 abortions performed in Africa and Latin America from 2010 to 2014 were done through unsafe means and that between 4.7 and 13.2 percent of annual maternal deaths can be attributed to illegal abortions.
Several Latin American countries ban abortion outright due to their affiliation with the Catholic Church. The church continues to support the belief that life begins at conception and that abortion is equal to murder, with Pope Francis equating abortion to hiring “a hitman.” As such, the criminalization of abortion aims to reduce the overall number of abortions performed within a country. However, according to the World Health Organization, countries where women have access to termination information, contraception, and legal abortions have the lowest actual termination rates. According to the Guttmacher Institute, within Latin America and the Caribbean alone, 5.4 million abortions were performed between 2015 and 2019.
El Salvador remains one of the most assertive criminal codes against abortions. Women who self-abort or consent to a third party performed abortion having the possibility of facing up to 40 years in prison. In Brazil, the most populous country in Latin America, abortions are only allowed under specific circumstances such as rape and health risks to the mother. Moreover, the current president of Brazil, far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, is attempting to make it even harder for women to abort.
Despite the lack of widespread legal abortion in Latin America, increasing numbers of people in the region have begun to support pro-abortion legislation. According to Mexican reproductive rights group GIRE, Mexican lawmakers have filed more than 40 proposals to end criminal punishment for abortion since 2018, and with Mexico’s first leftist government in a century in power, lawmakers are considering two pieces of legislation to reduce abortion restrictions and lessen its criminal punishment. In Chile, a vote in October to write a new constitution as an opportunity to expand current abortion laws holds the hope of progressing the state’s female reproductive rights. Likewise, in Columbia, the constitutional court has agreed to review a petition to remove abortion from the state’s criminal code.
Overall, calls for abortion rights have significantly increased within Latin America over the past decades. While abortion remains a prominent topic in Latin American politics and social movements, women’s rights groups and political parties must capitalize on this upswing in pro-abortion sentiment to ensure that abortion rights are available to all women in Latin America. Every woman has the right to control her body and decide when and if she wants to be pregnant. Removing prejudice against a woman’s right to choose will not only decrease abortion mortality rates, but it will also allow more women to pursue higher-level education and career opportunities, breaking cycles of female poverty and abuse.
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