Seven countries in Latin America and the Caribbean — El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Chile, Suriname, Dominican Republic and Haiti — do not allow abortions for any reason, not even to save the life of the mother, according to Jennifer Friedman, senior program officer of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
Women who are suspected of having abortions are prosecuted and often sentenced to prison. One such woman is Glenda Xiomara Cruz, 19, of El Salvador, who, on Oct. 30, 2012, miscarried her baby and is now serving a 10-year sentence for aggravated homicide.
Cruz is the mother of a 4-year-old girl. Her abusive partner testified against her in court.
Both PBS and BBC have reported that the prosecution relied heavily on that man’s testimony of her guilt.
A chilling story in The Miami Herald on Nov. 23, contained the following paragraph: “Abortion is illegal in Haiti, but women and girls are losing their uteruses and their lives as they turn to clandestine, increasingly deadly ways to terminate their pregnancies. These unsafe abortions are leading to a public-health crisis in a region with one of the world’s highest rates of unintended pregnancies, experts say.
And this: “Haiti’s health ministry, which has sought to take charge of the abortion debate, has estimated that unsafe abortions account for 20 percent to 30 percent of maternal mortality. But the reality is, the annual number of abortion-related deaths is unknown.”
The reality is that women in the Americas are having abortions, whether they are legal or not. The estimated number of abortions in Latin America increased slightly between 2003 and 2008, from 4.1 million to 4.4 million, according to a report released last year by the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health think tank in the United States.
Of those millions of abortions, 95 percent were not considered safe, which means they were most likely not conducted by professionals or took place in unsanitary, and therefore dangerous, conditions (think coat hangers and mysterious potions, think U.S. pre-Roe v. Wade in 1973).
Not surprisingly, most of the women who seek the help of unqualified “doctors” for their abortions are poor. The number of Latin American people living in poverty in 2013 grew to around 164 million, according to a just released report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America; 68 million live in extreme poverty.
Extreme poverty is one of the preoccupations of the man Time magazine has chosen as Person of the Year, Pope Francis. In late November, he strongly criticized free-market global economies for perpetuating inequality and emphasized that the church needs to stand with the poor and the disadvantaged.
Being from Argentina, he understands well the needs of this region. He knows the link between poverty and everything else that ails the continent, and he knows the influence that the church still exerts in Latin America.
Though the anti-abortion laws are matters of the state, it is undeniable that the church exerts a strong influence in the countries where the laws are most punitive against women.
And yet, when asked, the pope has said there is no need to obsess over these issues. Last September he told an interviewer that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues even if his critics, from the conservative wing of the church, wanted him to.
But there is a need to talk about changing the laws that make sacred temples of ordinary women’s bodies. The bodies are ours; the lives that are lost every year in the name of the sanctity of life are also ours. Why are the lives of unborn children more precious than the lives of their 13-year-old mothers? In Chile, in July, former President Sebastian Pinera praised a pregnant 11-year-old victim of rape who said she was planning to have her baby. He called her deep and mature.
Birth control is a safer, less controversial topic, or it ought to be. Latin America and the Caribbean have the second highest pregnancy rate among adolescents in the world. Not surprisingly, among the most common causes of death among adolescents in the region are early pregnancy and abortion, according to figures from UNICEF.
These are not the times to remain neutral or quiet. Pope Francis is right, let’s not obsess over topics like abortion or birth control. But let’s be vigilant and let’s be proactive. The governments in Latin American and the Caribbean ought to follow Pope Francis’ lead on thinking about the poor and the weak first, especially if the poor and the weak are adolescent girls who don’t want to become mothers just yet.
“It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life,” the pope recently wrote. “On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations.” He specifically pointed to rape or extreme poverty as examples of those difficult situations, all too typical in the region.
Let’s grab that other hand, the one Pope Francis is extending. It’s a start.