Latin American Reproductive Rights Update

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Latin America has long been an area of the world with very weak reproductive rights protections. All too familiarly, strong religious and other socially conservative interests in most Latin American countries (Cuba being the most notable exception) have successfully framed abortion law as being about traditional morality and “family values,” not women’s safety, health, and privacy. A recent report by the Guttmacher Institute documents the extent and characteristics of clandestine abortion in Latin America; the problem is a staggering one. However, three countries are currently showing movement in the right direction:

Argentina. In March 2012 the Argentine Supreme Court extended abortion rights to all women who are victims of rape; previously the right had only applied to women with mental disabilities. The case involved a 15-year-old girl who had been raped by her step-father. Last year the national legislature debated a measure that would have legalized abortion through the twelfth week of pregnancy, but it was soundly defeated. In the wake of the high court’s decision, however, the Buenos Aires city council narrowly passed an ordinance legalizing abortion in cases of both rape and danger to the woman’s life. The city’s mayor has not yet signed off on the measure; in light of the ruling, though, it’s unclear what additional impact the ordinance would have. 

Colombia. The Constitutional Court held (decision in Spanish only) that the human rights ombudsman agency, Procurador General de la NaciĆ³n, contravened the law by withholding and misrepresenting information about the country’s recently-won reproductive rights from women. Specifically, top officials in the agency created and distributed official documents stating that emergency contraception constitutes abortion; that medical professionals are allowed to block access to reproductive health services if they have personal objections to it; and that there is no right to abortion in the country. Although women in Colombia, in fact, only have limited abortion rights (i.e., only when the woman’s health is at stake, the fetus isn’t viable, or the pregnancy resulted from rape), the Court made it clear that those rights must be respected, and most of all by the governmental agency tasked with protecting them.

Uruguay. The Chamber of Deputies (the legislature’s lower house) has approved a bill legalizing all abortions during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, and abortions involving rape and fetal deformity a bit later. Unfortunately significant strings are attached. First, a woman must justify her decision before a three-member panel composed of a gynecologist, a psychologist, and a social worker. She must also be “educated” about adoption and other options. Finally, she must then wait five days to “reflect” on the decision before the procedure. Even with these paternalistic limitations, the law passed by the slimmest of majorities: 50-49. President Mujica (aka “Pepe”) is expected to allow the law to take effect, pending the Senate’s approval. 

Finally, in related news, Costa Rica’s twelve-year-old ban on in vitro fertilization (IVF) is being challenged in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (petition available in English). A two-day hearing on the case was held on September 5th and 6th. When issued, probably in December of this year, the decision will be binding on all countries that have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights.

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