Eugenia de Altura is a female graduate student conducting research on issues of women and gender in the cities of La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia. Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America with the exception of Haiti, and over 60% of the country’s population is of indigenous descent. Eugenia’s postings explore women’s rights, sexuality, and reproductive health in Bolivia and in Latin America as a whole.
On March 4, 2010, a team of medical doctors in Brazil performed a legal abortion on a nine-year-old girl who was pregnant with twins after being raped by her stepfather. Soon after, the Brazilian Archbishop Don Jose Cardoso Sobrinho excommunicated the entire medical team and the child’s mother for participating in the abortion. The young girl was not excommunicated, because according to the Archbishop, “’the church is benevolent when it comes to minors.’”
This story, and the controversy it has stirred in Brazil, is typical of legal abortion cases in Latin America. Abortion on demand is illegal almost everywhere in the region, with the exception of Cuba and Mexico City, but many countries allow abortions to be performed legally in cases of rape, incest, or when the procedure can save the woman’s life. Despite these allowances, however, it is exceedingly difficult for a woman to access a legal abortion in Latin America. The opposition of the Catholic Church and other conservative elements, even in situations when the procedure should be legally available, often discourages judges and doctors from participating in these cases. Only when the circumstances of the case are so abhorrent—such as a nine-year-old girl impregnated by her own stepfather—do the wheels of justice spin quickly enough to allow an abortion to be performed before the child is actually born.
Rather than embark on the costly, and very public, process of seeking a legal abortion, most women in Latin America who face unwanted pregnancy after rape simply seek clandestine, illegal abortions—as do women who have not been raped. 31 per 1,000 women in Latin America have had at least one abortion; this number is “two more than the global average” (3/10/10, Upside Down World). In Bolivia, where the procedure is particularly common—most likely due to poverty and lack of access to birth control—6 of every 10 women will have an abortion in her lifetime (Zulawski, 2007). (The rate for women in the U.S. is 1 in 3.) Because these abortions are illegal, and are provided by clandestine clinics whose medical procedures are largely unregulated, abortion is a leading cause of maternal mortality in the region. In Bolivia, it is estimated that 30% of maternal deaths are due to botched abortions.
These sorts of startling figures always bring me back to the lie that is the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion—that of “protecting life.” Whose lives, I wonder, does the Catholic Church deem worthy of protection? Unsafe abortions—which occur wherever the procedure is illegal—are responsible for 70,000 preventable deaths, women’s deaths, every year (Guttmacher Policy Review, Fall 2009, Vol. 12, No. 4). The article just cited also demonstrates that there are fewer abortions performed in countries where the procedure is actually legal. So, if it is “fetal life” that anti-abortion activists are interested in protecting, then legalizing abortion can accomplish that goal, too. But I don’t really think that the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion has much to do with protecting life. Instead, as the Upside Down World article cited above notes, the Church’s opposition to abortion in Latin America has more to do with flexing its political muscles. In fact, it’s really too bad that we don’t have more legal and political advocates in Latin America who truly do care about protecting “life.”