Argentina legalises abortion, joining a small Latin American group
Argentina has become the latest, and most populous, country in Latin America and the Caribbean to legalise abortion. On December 30th its Senate voted to legalise terminations in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy; previously abortions had been permitted only in cases of rape or when the mother’s health was in danger or the fetus malformed. As well as legalising many of the roughly 500,000 abortions that already take place each year in Argentina, according to campaigners, the change will increase the proportion of women in Latin America and the Caribbean with access to legal abortion from 3% to 10%.
Argentina is part of a small group in the predominantly Catholic region. Cuba, Guyana, Puerto Rico and Uruguay also allow abortions on request, and Belize allows terminations on social or economic grounds. Those six countries are home to just 29m of the region’s 326m women. Elsewhere, abortions take place mostly outside the law.
In most of Latin America, terminations are permitted only to save a woman’s life or to preserve her health. In the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname, they are banned altogether. Dozens of women in El Salvador have been convicted of manslaughter or homicide after having miscarriages or stillbirths since a total ban on abortions was introduced in 1998; campaigners say that at least 19 are still in prison. In 2012 a teenager with leukaemia in the Dominican Republic died after doctors delayed giving her chemotherapy because the treatment could harm her fetus.
Pro-choice campaigners point out that criminalising abortions does not stop them. Between 2010 and 2014, around 6.5m abortions were carried out each year in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a think-tank. That means that the average abortion rate is 44 per 1,000 women of reproductive age; in the United States it is 13.5. In countries where abortion is illegal, women who can afford to do so buy drugs online, turn to private doctors or travel to other countries––Argentina may now become a favoured destination. But the biggest problem for many comes after the procedure. If anything goes wrong, women who cannot afford private health care must seek treatment in public hospitals, where they risk being reported to the police.
Public opinion on abortion in Latin America is conservative. A recent Ipsos poll found that only 35% of Argentines, 36% of Chileans and 16% of Peruvians thought abortion should be permitted whenever a woman wanted one, against 60%-plus in several western European countries. However, in certain circumstances, such as rape, the share in favour rose to 72%, 68% and 49%, respectively. And opinion in Argentina and Chile has softened in recent years.
Chile lifted its total ban on abortion in 2017; it now allows terminations in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal impairment or when the mother’s life is at risk. Other countries may follow. Even in El Salvador Nayib Bukele, the president, has pledged to legalise abortion in cases where the pregnancy is endangering the woman’s life.