For many, 1989 was a year of freedoms, a turning point in history fueled by revolutions in Eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the eventual downfall of military dictatorship in Chile. But for Chilean women, 1989 was also the year that the military dictatorship took a parting shot, stripping them of their right to “therapeutic abortion,” the only type of abortion allowed under the law at that time. Without even the right to a therapeutic abortion—or one intended to save the life or health of the woman—Chilean women were subject to a total abortion ban from that year until this one.
After more than 20 years of struggle, reproductive rights advocates rejoiced last month when Chile relaxed the ban, passing a law that permits abortion in some circumstances. The victory is one of several examples of reproductive rights advances taking place in Latin American countries, and a trend in the liberalization of abortion laws in the region over two decades. While existing laws in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and elsewhere in Latin America still result in horrific injustices—such as the recent case of a young rape victim in El Salvador sentenced to 30 years of prison for murder after having a stillborn child—Latin America can, and should, celebrate its successes.
In 2006, human rights attorneys argued successfully to Colombia’s Constitutional Court that the country’s total ban on abortion was unconstitutional. In a landmark decision, the Court ruled that abortion should not be criminalized in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal impairments, and health or life endangerment of the mother. Since then, the country has been a pioneer in leading regional efforts to interpret “health,” including mental health, as liberally as possible, and working to ensure that women and girls can access abortion to the fullest extent of the law.
In 2007, Mexico City passed legislation decriminalizing elective abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy for all residents of the city. Five years later, Uruguay became the first country in South America to legalize abortion for any reason (up to 12 weeks). That same year, in Argentina, activists declared victory when the country’s Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling known as “Caso F.A.L.,” which established that abortion in cases of rape is not punishable by law. In Peru, even though therapeutic abortion has been legal since 1924, the government finally released protocols for this service in 2014, giving health professionals much needed guidance to provide this service.
These laws, policies, and protocols are an integral part of ensuring high-quality abortion care for all, but alone are not enough. Feminist activists from Mexico City to Montevideo work day and night to hold their governments accountable to these commitments, and civil society groups are essential to the fight. In Argentina, for example, IWHC grantee CEDES supports hospital staff to collect data, enabling them to track legal abortions. Without this data, the government might not be held accountable for its obligations to train providers or buy equipment. Promsex, one of our grantee partners in Peru, played a key role in pushing the government to release the protocols for therapeutic abortion. The group now works with a network of public sector abortion providers in Lima’s maternity hospitals to put these policies into action, ensuring that women can obtain lifesaving services. In Uruguay, a woman can legally obtain an abortion, but research from our grantee partner Mujer y Salud en Uruguay (MYSU) suggests that are there are still barriers limiting women’s access, including health professionals increasingly citing conscientious objection to abortion. This is a growing trend not limited to Uruguay.
The liberalization of Chile’s abortion law is a historic shift in the right direction, but we know that work to implement the law is just getting started. Gynecologists in Chile will not necessarily line up to be trained. Health authorities will not rush to allocate funds to buy medical abortion pills. Research institutions will not necessarily design studies to monitor how, and if, the law is being implemented. Feminist organizations and activists must ensure these actions are taken and that women’s rights are fully realized.
Advocates must pressure Ministries of Health to register medical abortion drugs on essential drug lists, create codes for abortion in medical records, and update medical school curricula so that students receive comprehensive abortion care training. Most importantly, we must continue to advocate for the complete decriminalization of abortion on all grounds.
Victories like the one in Chile are important steps, but only partial ones. The relaxing of the law still means that value judgments are placed on a woman’s choice to have an abortion, and that some women are told that their reasons for seeking an abortion are less valid than others. As a result, they are denied the ultimate right to control their bodies and their lives. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Malta, and Dominican Republic still have outright bans on abortion. Every woman, everywhere, should be able to get an abortion—no matter the reason or circumstance.
Photo: Revista Intemporie