TW: This article discusses instances of sexual violence.
In a landmark decision, the birthplace of the current Pope and a nation where 92 percent of the population self-identify as Catholic has voted to legalize elective abortions up to fourteen weeks. Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández followed through on his promise to continue efforts to liberalize the largest nation in Latin America and signed off on the bill, making Argentina the most recent Latin American and Catholic-majority nation to legalize elective abortions.
Argentina was not always so open to change. A similar abortion bill in 2018 failed to gain enough votes in the Senate to pass. Motivated by the Pope’s prompting that “the problem of abortion is not primarily a question of religion, but of human ethics, first and foremost of any religious denomination,” the anti-abortion “Save Both Lives” movement has increased their activity. Latin-America is strongly influenced by their Catholic roots, which is largely reflected in their stricter abortion laws. Still, Argentina stands out as less than 20 percent actually identifying as practicing Catholics, which could be a key factor in why elective abortions are now legal. This recent change in Argentinian abortion law brings up the issue of nuance in the region’s different abortion laws, and if it really is so simple to predict as calculating the percentage of Catholics living there.
Uruguay and Cuba
Uruguay and Cuba follow the Argentinian trend in abortion laws. Uruguay has taken similar steps in decriminalizing elective abortions yet still requiring those seeking such abortions to consult with a mandatory review panel, a five day “reflection period,” and an exception allowing private healthcare providers to opt-out of the procedure should they choose to do so. Many experts credit the acceptance of such a law to a lack of Catholic influence in the nation. Contrary to Argentina, Uruguay is not of Catholic majority. This phenomenon is also reflected in Cuba where elective abortions were decriminalized in 1965. Although some Cubans self-identify as Catholic, more identify as non-practicing following the decades long suppression of religion by the Communist Party.
Chile had a complete ban on all abortions until 2017. Elective abortions are completely banned, but a new law authorizes abortions only in cases of rape up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, if the mother’s life is at risk, or if the fetus is not expected to survive the pregnancy. Still, a clause in the original law allowed doctors to refuse to perform abortions based on personal choice. This allowance was further expanded under the Piñera regime’s new regulations, further enabling medical professionals to act as “conscious objectors” to the procedure. Private hospitals can continue to receive state funding if abortions are refused. In public hospitals, it is estimated one fifth of OBGYNs still refuse to perform abortions, even if the mother’s life is at risk. Even more contradictory to the law, half of doctors refuse to carry out abortions in cases of rape. Chile is also around 66 percent Roman Catholic, which is likely a factor as to why there is resistance on abortions from the medical community despite laws, which might suggest a more liberal attitude.
In Brazil, abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, if the mother’s life is at risk, or if the baby has an anencephaly, which makes it nearly impossible for the fetus to survive. Brazil is around 65 percent Roman Catholic, but the tightening of policies could also be attributed to President Jair Bolsonaro’s operation of the Brazilian government. President Bolsonaro threatened to veto any abortion bill passed, and after a ten-year-old was raped and impregnated by her uncle, Bolsonaro’s appointed minister of women, families, and human rights decided the child would still have the baby via Cesarian section. An August 2020 regulation required medical personnel to report to police women who sought abortions after rape, and the government is establishing a hotline to report those who are suspected of having illegal abortions.
Abortion in Peru is illegal except in cases needed to save the mother’s life. Many bills have been debated by the legislature to allow abortion in instances of rape, but these attempts failed; thus abortion remains illegal in those cases. Peru, like a majority of the region, is also a majority Catholic nation. Even though Peru has moved towards liberalizing their politics by electing their first female top judge, a nation where a women’s style of underwear has been used as a successful defense against rape allegations has a long way to go until it moves in the direction of Argentina in their laws affecting women.
Mexico’s abortion laws vary by state, but all states have an exception for cases of rape. Only two states allow elective abortions and abortion in the remaining states is a crime; women are jailed for having miscarriages or intentionally terminating the pregnancy. A case brought before Mexico’s Supreme Court in July 2020 gave the nation an opportunity to decriminalize abortions but the Court declined, with a majority of justices ruling against decriminalization despite recommendations by human rights groups. Mexico is 82 percent Roman Catholic, higher than other nations in the region, yet certain areas are more liberal in their abortion laws, and support for allowing abortions has grown in Mexico. Overcoming Catholic influence on abortion laws is attributed to a number of factors, including the state system, Mexico’s history of liberal reform, and the nation’s avoidance of populist governments.
In Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras, all abortions are completely illegal. Women who undergo abortions are thrown in jail, sometimes for decades, even if the pregnancy was the result of rape or threatened the mother’s life. Many women are investigated or jailed for miscarriages and stillbirths, and, coupled with a high rate of sexual violence and unwanted pregnancy, illegal abortion rates are high. These governments largely reject changing the abortion regulations, with Nicaragua only passing their complete ban in 2006.
Nicaragua and El Salvador are only 50 percent Roman Catholic, while Honduras is only 46 percent Roman Catholic, begging the question of why these nations have such strict abortion regulations when the Catholic influence is less than nations with more liberal laws, such as Mexico and Argentina. The answer lies in the political systems. Nicaragua has been under President Daniel Ortega since 2007, with the government exercising extreme control, such as banning opposition parties and violently putting down anti-government protests. El Salvador’s government has also been rampant with corruption and extreme control, like preventing press coverage of the 2019 presidential election. Honduras’s officials exercise control through police and military violence, corruption, and protest crackdowns.
In many cases, Catholic-majority Latin American nations seem to relax abortion laws as the nation becomes more secular, but politics and tight control by government leaders can quickly restrict abortion regulations. Argentina has taken a large step towards liberalizing their laws, but the movement could still be stifled by the Pope and the rise in right-wing politics throughout Latin America.
Author Biography: Elise Levy is a Deputy Moderator-in-Chief with the International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at the George Washington University Law School. She received her B.A. in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).