Abortion Under Siege in Latin America

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Aizar Raldes / AFP / Getty

An indigenous Bolivian woman walks in La Paz.

The remarkable comeback by leftist political parties in Latin America in recent years has been accompanied by moves to roll back the region's abortion laws, widely considered some of the world's most restrictive. Mexico City's leftist-dominated legislature legalized first-trimester abortions earlier this year, while Chile's socialist President, Michele Bachelet, allows government-run hospitals to dispense the "morning-after" emergency contraception pill.

Elsewhere, however, it might seem as if a paradox was being played out: Instead of benefiting from the advance of the left, pro-choice advocates appear to be facing more setbacks. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, whose Sandinista Front was once an icon of the hemispheric left, backed a 2006 law that outlaws all abortions, even where a doctor would recommend the procedure to save a mother's life. In Venezuela — led by the self-styled commandante of "21st-century socialism," President Hugo Chavez — efforts to decriminalize abortion have stalled. And, perhaps as early as this fall, Bolivia's new constitution, which is being drafted largely by those aligned with Chavez's ally, President Evo Morales, may well proclaim "the right to life from the moment of conception," rendering all abortions illegal without exception. (Abortion in the case of rape or to save a mother's life has been legal in Bolivia since 1973.) Far from advancing abortion rights, "the goal right now," says Paul Bustillos, political director for Catholics For the Right to Choose (CDD) in Bolivia, "is just to maintain the status quo."

"Status quo" was hardly the promise of a political movement that has put the screws on multinational energy corporations, shifted billions of dollars to social projects for the poor and, especially in Chavez's case, hurled a stream of anti-imperialist epithets at the U.S. With firebrands like Chavez and Morales in power, some were hoping for a continental breakthrough on reproductive rights. Yet while positions on abortion rights have been a clear marker between left and right on the U.S. political spectrum, the situation is quite different in Latin America, where the left declines, for various national, cultural and religious reasons, to make "the revolution" pro-choice.

Bolivia is a case in point. As many as 80,000 abortions are performed each year in a country of less than 9 million people, giving it one of the world's highest abortion rates — but most abortions are clandestine, especially among poorer women who can't afford the $150 fee to undergo the safe, no-questions-asked abortions available through some medical facilities. Such underground procedures are the third leading cause of maternal mortality in the country. Yet there is no record of any doctors or patients involved being prosecuted. "I was all alone," says one Bolivian woman who paid about $50 for a back-alley abortion a few years ago. The abortionist "numbed that part of my body and then he did something to make it come out of me right there into the toilet."

Despite awareness of such horror stories, says Julieta Ojeda of the Bolivian feminist group Women Creating, "if you ask the average person in the street, they will probably say they are against" liberalizing abortion laws. Some abortion-rights activists attribute this to such factors as the moral influence of the Church, which has helped convince leftist parties such as Morales' Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) to trade away abortion rights proposals for concessions in areas such as economic reform. Others see it as another sign that the "new" Latin American left has not shed the macho attitudes of its forebears and their tendency to relegate women's issues to the sidelines.

But there are other factors behind the Latin American left's ambivalence on reproductive rights. One is a widespread tendency in the developing world to associate abortion rights, like gay rights, with an imperialist agenda of the industrialized world. That's especially true in countries such as Bolivia, whose indigenous majority suffered foreign cultural, political and economic bullying for five centuries before Morales, himself an Aymara Indian, was elected. Western feminism has had a condescending habit of treating Bolivia's indigenous cultures as backward, without trying to understand the nuances of their outlook on issues like abortion — a word that doesn't even exist in most of the country's Indian languages.

Abortion, in fact, is referred to in indigenous Bolivia as "bad birth." The procedure is, indeed, performed in rural communities, normally with herbal formulas; but it's frowned upon because it's believed to create imbalances in nature. Women who do abort, for example, are ritually cleansed afterward. As a result, there is little enthusiasm in the indigenous communities for legally sanctifying abortion with a raised fist and a NOW button.

But pro-choice advocates such as the CDD's Bustillos hope that indigenous leaders and other pro-Morales forces in Bolivia will agree that the latest anti-abortion proposal goes too far. "Once delegates [to the Constitutional Assembly] realize the implications of the 'conception' clause, like outlawing abortions even if a 12-year-old is raped," says Bustillos, "they'll come around," as Colombia's high court did last year when it decriminalized abortion in such cases. The stakes are high — over 400 women die each year from botched abortions in Bolivia, and there is concern that the number will rise if the conception clause passes. Still, unless pro-choice advocates come up with fresher, more culturally aware tactics for their work in Latin America, "coming around" will simply mean standing in place.