Health, Human Rights, Lifestyle, Politiks

Women and abortion: when others make the decisions for them

There are five countries in the world where abortion is still banned, for whatever reason. Three of these are Latin American: Nicaragua, El Salvador and Chile. The termination of a pregnancy, even in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s health is at risk, results in a prison sentence.

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Miriam Valero


Amalia (a false name for anonymity purposes) had the strength to raise her voice, through a local newspaper, and ask the Nicaraguan government permission to abort in order to save her life. This 27-year old young woman was pregnant and, during the course of her gestation, was diagnosed with a cancer that had spread to other parts of her body.

Her situation worsened with the pregnancy and the doctors could not administer her with the necessary chemotherapy to try and save her life – if they had, they would have endangered the foetus and, under Nicaraguan Law, would have been convicted, as well as her, for performing an abortion, albeit indirectly.

The Nicaraguan Penal Code forbids all forms of terminating pregnancies, with no exception, and convicts those who take part in them. Not only the patients, but also the doctors and nurses can be imprisoned for up to three years.

Four other countries –El Salvador, Chile, Malta and Vatican City – have similar laws to those in Nicaragua, where all those who are involved are punishable, even in the cases of rape victims, relationships of incest or if the pregnancy would endanger the life of the mother or that of the foetus.

Amalia’s case is only one example of millions of women around the world whose complete reproductive and sexual rights are not recognised, which puts their lives in danger. Many of them die as doctors cannot perform a direct or indirect abortion to help treat them, whilst others put their own lives in danger by undergoing backstreet abortions as their countries do not give them any other option.

According to the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), 20% of female deaths in Latin America are caused by complications from abortions that have taken place without being medically sound.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the global rate sits at around 12%. In addition, the WHO estimates that each year, almost a million women in Latin America and the Caribbean are hospitalised for treatment due to complications that arise from unsafe abortions.

Also, whilst in many countries around the world women fight to achieve safe and free abortions in any circumstance, many women still fight to not be imprisoned for aborting after having suffered from either rape or sexual abuse from a family member, or wanting to save their lives if there is no possibility of the child surviving.

The laws in this country violate women’s rights to the point that, at times, they don’t even distinguish between the abortions that occur by inducement and those that occur naturally, making women guilty of a situation that they did not choose themselves.

El Salvador: prison

Until 1997, the women in El Salvador could abort if their health, or that of the foetus, was in danger or if they were victims of rape.

Nevertheless, since 1998, it has taken a huge step backwards for women’s reproductive rights that has still not been rectified since and, to this day, abortion holds a sentence of eight years imprisonment for all cases.

Activists in the country have denounced that, in many cases, women have been imprisoned for longer than the trials, as the crime of abortion has been transformed into homicide, and the sentence can be up to 30 years in prison.

Furthermore, the country imprisons women who have ‘natural abortions’ (or miscarriages), without distinguishing who or what caused them, only that the foetus is no longer alive. On many occasions, the women are transported straight to prison from the hospital, according to condemning witness reports.

Nevertheless, the reality of abortion in El Salvador is very different in public and private hospitals.

The doctors at public health services are pressured not to respect professional privacy and condemn abortions. When women can afford it go to private hospitals their privacy is better respected. This means that those affected by the penalisation of abortion are those with less resources and who cannot pay for a private clinic.

Special authorities sent by the UN to the country have insisted that the Government change the law that bans abortion under any circumstance. Due to this, the Government declared its promise to change the current laws, even though it has still not made any efforts to do so.

Nicaragua: a step back for its law.

Since 2008, the Nicaraguan Penal Code has considered abortion a crime. Before the legal reform, the country allowed therapeutic abortion for over 100 years, when the health of the mother or the foetus was endangered. Since this law came into effect, anyone who tries to abort or help someone abort runs the risk of being imprisoned.

The current law establishes that “a woman that intentionally causes her own abortion or consents that another performs it” will be condemned to one or two years in prison.

At the same time, the law also establishes punishments of between one and three years in prison for those who take part in the practice of abortion and, furthermore in the case of doctors, establishes a disqualification to practice medicine.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Nicaraguan doctors are afraid to intervene in case they get punished for taking part in an abortion. Therefore, in some cases where the foetus does not have a chance survive but the mother does, doctors are restricted by law from helping them. As a result, the mother also dies.

A fact to take into account in relation to this country is the high rates of violence and rapes that take place against women and children. According to judicial reports undertaken by Amnesty International, 14,300 rape cases were recorded between 1998 and 2008.

With this elevated violence rate, the disapproval of abortions in the cases of rape affect the women in this country much more than in its neighbouring countries, meaning that many more women are susceptible to remaining pregnant after suffering from an attack.

Another sector affected especially by the law is that of young people. In the same way, the country’s pregnancy rate is very high and the legal ban on abortion affects mainly those under the age of 18, who do not have the option to choose.

Therefore, many external institutions have called for Nicaragua to change its laws. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was one of the most recent to demand the abolition of abortion being completely banned and the adoption of the means to put an end to the sexual violence against women and children.

Chile: the President, Against

Therapeutic abortion was also carried out in Chile before 1989. That year, the law that protected abortion was abolished in the country during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Since then, Chilean women have not been able to terminate a pregnancy for any reason and doctors that help them are imprisoned.

Abortion is a crime in Chile, with a sentence of three to five years in prison for both the women and the medical team that perform the procedure, according to its Penal Code.

Last April, the Chilean Senate denied three motions that were put forward to commence a possible legalisation of therapeutic abortion in many areas in the country. Now, it cannot be resubmitted to the Senate until this coming year.

A large number of illegal abortions take place, which do not guarantee safety as they are not legalised by the State. Nevertheless, many Chileans choose this way to terminate a pregnancy.

In reference to the legalisation of abortion – at least therapeutically and in rape cases –President Sebastian Piñera confirmed that he “would veto any project of a law in regards to this subject”, making it seem unlikely that Chile is close to changing the situation of women’s reproductive rights.

This is happening, not only in these countries, but also in others – such as Mexico, where the law is supposedly less strict, but there have been cases where women have also been imprisoned.

Others, whilst not imprisoned, have been made to complete their term after being victims of rape or being forced by a family member into relationship of incest. This has been condemned by the UN and medical sectors as cruel and inhuman. Whereas, in more than 90% of countries worldwide, abortion is simply a recognised as a woman’s right and part of the law.

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