Abortion Rights in Latin America
Updated: Jan 25
Trigger warning: This article will discuss abortion, rape, discrimination and gender violence. Feel free to skip this one if you could be affected by these topics.
On 7th September 2021 the Mexico Supreme Court unanimously ruled that criminal penalties for abortion are unconstitutional, marking a historic moment for a country that previously enforced some of the world’s most prohibitive laws against the procedure. This ruling could pave the way for complete decriminalisation of abortions.
Mexico’s ruling follows a series of hard-fought victories for abortion activists across Latin America, proving there is hope for feminist progression within a region rife with historically male-dominated power structures.
However, in numerous Latin American countries, abortion is legal only under extenuating circumstances such as rape or to save the mother’s life. In four countries, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, abortion remains illegal under any circumstance.
The burgeoning Latin American feminist movement continues to work tirelessly - not just with regard to abortion, but in striving for equality in all facets of a woman’s life. Other major feminist issues include preventing violence against women and normalising LGBT+ issues in conservative countries such as Brazil and Mexico.
This article will outline the varying abortion laws throughout Latin America and delve into other major issues facing Latin American women in the 21st century.
The feminist movement and abortion laws in Latin America
In recent years, the tireless efforts of abortion activists have been supplemented by a surge of feminist activism across Latin America.
Back in September 2021, thousands of women took to the streets throughout Latin America to campaign for improved abortion laws. Sporting green scarves—a key symbol of the global movement for decriminalising abortion—and carrying signs reading ‘Right to Decide’ and ‘Legal Abortion Now’, protestors in Chile, El Salvador, Peru, Mexico and Colombia demanded the decriminalisation of abortion and the release of those already imprisoned. El Salvador currently has 18 women imprisoned for crimes related to the procedure.
With the help of social media’s unparalleled ability to organise events and bring people together, the feminist movement has successfully ensured that reproductive rights—along with issues of female political representation and domestic violence—are firmly on the political agenda.
What abortion laws are currently in place in Latin America?
Consisting of 20 countries and 14 dependent territories, Latin America lacks the unification of other regions such as Europe, and abortion laws vary widely across the continent. The region remains a battleground for competing ideas and influences, making it impossible to detail abortion policy as a collective. However, all nations fall into three categories: those where abortion is legal and/or decriminalised, those where it’s permitted only under extenuating circumstances and those where abortion is completely prohibited.
Prior to the seismic shifts in Mexico and Argentina, it was the smaller countries of Cuba, Guyana, Uruguay who led the way with forward-thinking legislation. These three nations decriminalised abortion years ago, with Cuba doing so back in 1965—unsurprising for a nation with a universally praised healthcare system.
In December 2020, Argentina legalised abortions up to the 14th week of pregnancy, whereas previously the procedure was only permitted for rape victims and for instances where the mother’s health was at risk. A significant crowd of pro-choice activists gathered outside congress—located in Buenos Aires—and followed the debate on huge screens.
Mexico followed suit nine months later, with the Supreme Court ruling that the criminalisation of abortion goes against the constitution. However, legislation still varies from state to state, and some parts of Mexico continue to criminalise the procedure. Be that as it may, the ruling set a federal binding precedent: judges can no longer send an individual to prison for having or assisting in abortions, regardless of local legislation.
In contrast, Brazil—the largest and arguably one of the most influential Latin American countries —shows no signs of updating their draconian abortion laws. The country is currently led by a conservative government whilst also being home to the largest Roman Catholic population in Latin America. Brazil currently prohibits abortion except for cases of rape and when the mother’s life is in danger.
Following the groundbreaking Argentinian Senate vote, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro tweeted:
“I mourn for the lives of Argentine children, now subject to being ripped from the bellies of their mothers with the consent of the State. If it depends on me and my government, abortion will never be approved on our soil. We will always fight to protect the life of the innocent.”
Colombia currently allows legal abortion under three circumstances: rape, incest, or non-consensual insemination. But it could be the next Latin American nation to decriminalise the procedure as the Constitutional Court debates whether to eliminate abortion as a crime. The decision, originally intended to take place in November 2021, was postponed due to a judge recusing himself from the vote.
Juxtaposed against the historical rulings in Mexico and Argentina, Honduras recently made it practically impossible to legally have an abortion under any circumstance. The country now joins El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic as the only Latin American nations with a blanket ban on abortion.
The Chilean Crisis
Chile remains a nation where abortion is only legal in limited cases, forcing some women to turn to birth control to prevent unwanted pregnancies. In typical circumstances, birth control is highly effective, boasting a prevention rate of 99%.
However, throughout 2021, scores of Chilean women fell pregnant despite correctly taking birth control provided by the public health system. It was later revealed—despite the government's best attempt to sweep the issue under the rug—that 276,890 packets of oral contraceptives provided were defective.
The problem was not the pills themselves, but the packaging. Packets of birth control pills typically contain 21 active yellow pills, and seven blue placebo pills, which are intended to be taken when the woman is menstruating. Instead, thousands of packets were found to have placebo and active pills in the incorrect slots. Additional issues, including crushed and missed pills, were later discovered, resulting in further recalls.
Despite the egregious governmental error and the life-changing consequences, there was very little coverage on the matter and most of the public remained unaware of the issue. The government did not hold a news conference or make any attempt to warn women of the problem.
The question moving forward is whether the government should take responsibility and help these women. Some have argued the State should contribute towards the child’s educational and living costs. But the government’s lack of response to the immediate discovery of the defective pills does not inspire hope.
One potential silver lining has been outlined by women’s rights activists who believe the event could act as a catalyst for broadening abortion access in Chile.
More Than Just Abortion
Latin American women face further gender discrimination outside of the legal sphere. There are currently limited economic opportunities for women—a result of the historically patriarchal systems that remain prevalent in today’s Latin American societies.
The labour force participation of women within the region is one of the lowest in the world—60% of women work compared with 80% of men. This is partly attributed to the cultural expectation that women should act as the primary caregiver. Latin American women spend twice as many hours as men participating in unpaid care work and domestic labour.
Additionally, once they enter the labour market, women typically occupy low paying and low-quality jobs. Occupational segregation exists, with women typically employed in healthcare, education and domestic services. Whilst an increasing number of women are earning academic degrees, they’re often not relevant for high-salary sectors, explaining why Latin American countries such as Brazil and Chile have some of the largest wage gaps in the world.
Data from Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and El Salvador indicate that men with comparable educational qualifications and occupational skills to women still earn almost twice as much as their female counterparts.
In truth, there are few areas where Latin American women experience true equality. Political underrepresentation, abortion legislation and economic discrimination are just some of the issues women face in their day to day life. The current feminist movement has experienced recent success in opening a dialogue and, in some instances, forcing legislative change. But with some nations persistent in their conservative laws and the more progressive countries having plenty of room to grow, the feminist movement will continue to move forward.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka
Researched by Larisa Cuturean