Friday, December 02, 2005

Abortion in Latin America

A New York Times article reports on the stepped-up efforts by Latin American women to mount legal challenges to their countries' anti-abortion laws.

In most of these countries, women have been barred from getting legal abortions under any circumstances -- even if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest; even if the pregnancy threatens the woman's life. One of the few exceptions, interestingly enough, is Cuba. There, abortion is "readily available."

Which is not to say that women in Latin American countries do not have abortions. They do; abortion is quite common there, in fact. But the abortions are not legal; therefore they are done clandestinely, by unqualified or underqualified people, or by the woman herself; and the result is a very high mortality rate for the woman and, of course, the fetus.

The Times article opens with a typical such incident, in Pamplona, Colombia:

In this tradition-bound Roman Catholic town one day in April, two young women did what many here consider unthinkable: pregnant and scared, they took a cheap ulcer medication known to induce abortions. When the drug left them bleeding, they were treated at a local emergency room - then promptly arrested.

Insisting that abortion was rare, Pamplona's conservative leaders thought the case was over. Instead, the episode reverberated throughout Colombia and helped to galvanize a national movement to roll back laws that make abortion illegal, even to save a mother's life.

Latin America holds some of the world's most stringent abortion laws, yet it still has the developing world's highest rate of abortions -- a rate that is far higher even than in Western Europe, where abortion is widely and legally available.

Increasingly, however, women's rights groups across the region are mounting challenges in courts and on the streets to liberalize laws that in some countries ban abortion under any circumstances. At least one major case with implications for the entire region could be decided in the coming days.

So far, no country has dropped its ban. But the effort, spurred by the high mortality rate among Latin American women who undergo clandestine abortions, has begun to loosen once ironclad restrictions and opened the door to more change.

If these draconian anti-abortion laws prove anything, it's that their supporters are motivated far more by fanatical religiosity and extremely unenlightened views about the value of women than they are by concern for the health, lives, or well-being of either pregnant women or their unborn babies.

Regional health officials increasingly argue that tough laws have done little to slow abortions. The rate of abortions in Latin America is 37 per 1,000 women of childbearing age, the highest in the world outside of Eastern Europe, according to United Nations figures. Four million abortions, most of them illegal, take place in Latin America annually, the United Nations reports, and up to 5,000 women are believed to die each year from complications from abortions.

In an interview, a doctor in Medellín, Colombia, said that while he offered safe, if secret, abortions, many abortionists did not.

"In this profession, we see all kinds of things, like people using witchcraft, to whatever pills they can get their hands on," said the doctor, who charges about $45 to carry out abortions in women's homes and who spoke on condition that his name not be used, because performing an abortion in Colombia can lead to a prison term of more than four years.

"They open themselves up to incredible risks, from losing their reproductive systems or, through complications, their lives," the doctor said, referring to women who have such abortions.

Such arguments have done little to sway an anti-abortion movement that is largely led by influential leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

In Colombia, José Galat, the Catholic rector of the Gran Colombia University, has collected two million signatures against efforts to legalize abortion and has paid for full-page newspaper advertisements criticizing abortion rights advocates.

"If there is life, then it has all the rights and a mother cannot apply the death penalty," he said.
How revealing that he says "a mother" instead of "a woman." Apparently once a sperm and egg fuse in a woman's fallopian tubes, her personhood is less important than her job description.

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