Knocked Up and Locked Out

In Latin America, a growing number of women risk estrangement, imprisonment, and even death to seek an abortion

| December 16, 2004

Abortion is all but universally illegal in Latin America. In Chile, for example, having the procedure can land a woman in jail for up to five-years. Yet, the region has one of the highest abortion rates in the world and, consequently, an equally staggering rate of failure. Each year, an estimated 5,000 women die as a result of clandestine abortions, and another 800,000 are hospitalized (all totaled, that means about one-fifth of those who pursue the procedure suffer complications).

According to Latin American scholars, such as Anibal Faundes at the State University of Campinas in Sao Paulo, these high numbers result in part from gender inequality in a culture that says women should trust men unquestionably, even though those same men are not held responsible for being sexually active. What's more, while it's been proven that family planning and legalizing abortion actually lowers abortion rates, many of the region's leftist governments have left birth control and reproductive rights off their progressive agendas, often as a concession to the Catholic Church -- which often helped these same regime's rise to power. In Brazil, which is one of the countries where contraception is used most frequently, only 50% of those women who consider themselves sexually active use some form of birth control. That number is closer to 18% in Bolivia, according to the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

In the 1960s, a study in Chile led researchers to conclude that the typical Latin American woman averaged two or three abortions in her lifetime. Today, with the improved access to contraception and family planning, that regional average is down to 1.2, ranging from one in Mexico to almost two in Peru. These numbers are still considered high, though, since they are national averages and poor women are disproportionately burdened.

Christina Alonso, a nurse at the Luna Maya birthing clinic in Mexico, estimates that there are between one-half and one-million abortions in Mexico annually. And while abortion is legal in cases of rape or when a mother's life is in danger, the application procedures in Mexico are often too complicated to follow for poor or illiterate patients -- women who also happened to be pressed for time. Last year in Mexico City, for instance, only 17 abortions were approved.

Currently, abortion is legal only in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and a few other Caribbean nations.

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