This post is dedicated to Clayton Fagner Alves Dias, soldado da PM N. 96008.
On February 20, 2015, a nineteen-year-old young woman was arrested outside the city of São Paulo, Brazil for an alleged illegal abortion. The girl had gone to a private hospital to seek medical care. The physician who treated her suspected an abortion and called the police. She was handcuffed in the hospital and brought to the police precinct.
This case seems to encapsulate the current repressive attitude towards abortion across the Americas — from the Rio Grande Valley to Brazil. Yet, the history of abortion rights is much more complicated, and it has not moved in a linear trajectory.1 Rather, Latin America has experienced what one scholar has termed “waves of criminalization and decriminalization” throughout the twentieth century.2 Brazil and Argentina, for example, were some of the first countries in the world to legalize “therapeutic” abortions in the early-twentieth century. But abortion continues to remain criminalized in most circumstances across the region, something that has not changed since the implementation of modern criminal codes in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.3 In fact, if we examine abortion within the larger history of political regime change in South America, we see that the repressive and conservative military dictatorships that characterized the region in the latter half of the twentieth century were often more liberal towards abortion rights than their democratic counterparts. In other words, democracy and dictatorship could both converge or differ in relation to abortion policy.
In Argentina, for example, the military regime of General Juan Onganía (1966-1970) liberalized abortion law, allowing it in the case of rape and “medical necessity.”4 This stood in contrast to the earlier more restrictive stance under populist leaders Juan and Eva Perón. When Perón returned to power in 1973, he once again restricted abortion and contraception, a policy upheld by the following military dictatorship, or the Junta, which overthrew Perón in 1976, and waged an internal “Dirty War” against its own citizens until 1983, “disappearing” up to 30,000 Argentines.5 Women, employing their social roles as mothers, were one of the only groups able to function in the public sphere without repression. The Madres and Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo successfully protested the military regime, asking for their disappeared children back.6
Women employed their maternal identities to ask for regime change. Underlying the policies of disparate Argentine political actors was an emphasis on women’s natural roles as mothers; something that state policy makers shared with Church officials and even feminists. This equation of women as mothers was present across the region, from Mexico to Chile, and has proved the most difficult social trope to break. This rhetoric has provided the firm bolstering of anti-abortion laws throughout the twentieth century across Latin America.7
Recently, feminist and reproductive justice groups have distanced themselves from maternalist politics, and a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion has been advanced in Latin America. In July 2014, the Peruvian Minister of Health released national protocols for the practice of therapeutic abortion in the country. Ninety years after the Peruvian Penal Code legalized therapeutic abortions up to twenty-two weeks gestation if the woman’s health was in danger, physicians now have official guidelines to practice the procedure. The Peruvian Congress also has begun debating the allowance of therapeutic abortions in the case of rape. Currently, if a woman’s physical health is in danger, the Ministry of Health will provide therapeutic abortions free of charge to all Peruvian women, giving impoverished women and young girls access to safe and legal abortion services for the first time. But significant barriers still exist. Three physicians must approve the procedure, and medical professionals are still required to report women if they present with potentially criminal post-abortion complications.
In November 2014, the Argentine Congress’s Lower House debated a bill for the first time that would legalize abortion in the first twelve weeks without exception, and after twelve weeks in the cases of fetal malformation, rape, and life-threatening health problems to the mother. In 2012, Uruguay legalized all abortions in the first twelve weeks of gestation. Along with Cuba, and Mexico City, it has the most liberal abortion laws in the region. In 2007, Mexico City legalized abortion in the first twelve weeks. It is provided free of charge in clinics across the city. Yet this liberalization caused neighboring Mexican states to further restrict abortion rights, and since 2007, sixteen states have reformed their state constitutions to read that life begins at the moment of conception.
In other words, positive changes and negative setbacks are not mutually exclusive. In Chile, for example, ex-Minister of Health Maria Holina had to resign in December 2014 after openly stating that many middle- and upper-class women had abortions in Chile, as they had the financial means to access safe, if illegal, procedures. In Chile, abortion is illegal in all circumstances — even for rape, fetal malformations, or if the mother’s life is in danger. And the state has begun to crack down, as a woman was recently arrested for allegedly taking drugs to induce an abortion. Despite this recent repression, Chilean president Michele Bachelet, herself a physician, proposed a new bill that would decriminalize abortion in the case of rape, or if the fetus’s or mother’s life was in danger. The current law that restricts abortion in all cases was “arbitrarily” passed in the waning years of the Pinochet dictatorship, according to President Bachelet. In contrast to Argentina, the Chilean dictatorship restricted abortion rights.
And of course, we cannot forget about Nicaragua and El Salvador, two Central American countries in which, like Chile, abortion is completely illegal.
In Nicaragua, former leftist Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega completely criminalized the procedure in 2006. And it is hard to read the news about reproductive justice without hearing about El Salvador, a country that imprisons women for a miscarriage. Las 17 represents a group of seventeen women who are serving prison sentences of up to fifty years for alleged abortion-related charges. One woman, Guadalupe, was recently pardoned by the El Salvadorean Legislative Assembly; she will be released from prison in the next month. Guadalupe has served seven years of her thirty-year sentence. She was charged and convicted of aggravated homicide after suffering from obstetric complications that ended in a miscarriage in 2007. Activists remain hopeful that other women will be released.
In El Salvador, the women who are sentenced to prison are most often young and poor. Many of them are already mothers. For example, Cristina Quintanilla was pregnant with her second child when she had a premature delivery that she alleged was a stillbirth. She was arrested and imprisoned for murder, and it was not until four years later that a lawyer who accidentally stumbled upon her case worked to release her from prison. She now lives with her eleven-year-old son and three-year-old daughter who was born after her incarceration. Perhaps twentieth-century politicians, feminists, and Church officials were not completely wrong. Many women choose to be mothers, and many also choose to be mothers at the same time that they decide to control their reproduction through contraception and abortion. Fertility control and motherhood are not opposing decisions. However, we must stop chaining women to only maternalist roles, as continuing the debunked argument that women are inherently maternal is dangerous to both abortion access and women’s health.
Blofield, Merike. The Politics of Moral Sin: Abortion and Divorce in Spain, Chile and Argentina. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Mooney, Jadwiga Pieper. The Politics of Motherhood: Maternity and Women’s Rights in Twentieth-Century Chile. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.
- Matthieu de Castelbajac, “Aborto legal: elementos sociohistóricos para o estudo do aborto previsto por lei no Brasil,” Revista de Direito Sanitário 10, no. 3 (2010): 41. Return to text.
- Isabel Cristina Hentz, “A honra e a vida: Debates jurídicos sobre aborto e infanticídio nas primeiras décadas do Brasil republicano” (Master’s Thesis, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, 2013), 54. Return to text.
- Mala Htun, Sex and the State: Abortion, Divorce, and the Family Under Latin American Dictatorships and Democracies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 142–143. Return to text.
- Mala Htun, Sex and the State: Abortion, Divorce, and the Family Under Latin American Dictatorships and Democracies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 145. Return to text.
- Cassia Paigen Roth, “Planning the Argentine Family: The State, the Church, and Feminism in the Twentieth Century” (Honors Project, Bowdoin College, 2008), Chapter 1. Return to text.
- Marguerite Guzman Bouvard, Revolutionizing Motherhood: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002). Return to text.
- For a historical look at maternalist rhetoric see Asuncion Lavrin, Women, Feminism, and Social Change in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, 1890-1940 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998). Return to text.