September 28th: Day for Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America

The legality of abortion in Latin America varies from country to country. The one constant almost everywhere is the inaccessibilty of a safe, legal procedure.


The recent death of a pregnant 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic has once more drawn attention to Latin America’s claim to some of the world’s most restrictive abortion policies.

The young Dominican woman, known only as “Esperancita,” died from complications of leukemia after being forced to wait nearly three weeks to begin chemotherapy by hospital officials who had initially refused to treat her at all in fear of the life-saving treatment harming her pregnancy.

Due to an amendment in the Dominican Republic’s constitution that states that “the right to life is inviolable from conception until death,” an abortion, which may have saved her life, was out of the question.

When the constitution was amended in 2009, the Dominican Republic joined four other countries in the region where abortion is prohibited for any reason: Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. Surprisingly, despite recent advances throughout the region, including decriminalization in Mexico City, a rape exception in Argentina that passed just this year, and a trend toward more progressive governments, abortion rights have taken a step backwards in countries such as Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, where it has been fully criminalized within the last decade, and in El Salvador where abortion was criminalized in all cases as recently as 1998.  In addition, the legalization of abortion in Mexico City prompted a backlash from Mexican pro-life groups who successfully fought to amend the constitutions of 13 Mexican states to declare that life begins “at conception.”

The legality of abortion in all other Latin American countries varies widely, from having no restrictions as to reason, such as in Cuba; to being allowed in cases of economic hardship or rape, such as in Uruguay; to only being permitted when it would save the life of the pregnant woman, as in Brazil. The reality in countries where some form of legal abortion exists, however, is one of limited access and, often, insurmountable obstacles such as delays in the judicial processes women are required to undergo to obtain a legal abortion.

Nevertheless, the Guttmacher Institute estimates that the annual number of abortions in Latin America increased slightly between 2003 and 2008, from 4.1 million to 4.4 million, and that 95 percent were “unsafe” according the World Health Organization definitions, which refer to abortions performed by individuals without the necessary skills, and/or in environments that do not conform to minimum medical standards.

Around one million women in Latin America and the Caribbean are hospitalized annually for complications from unsafe abortions, and the World Health Organization estimates that in 2008, 12 percent of all maternal deaths in the region were due to unsafe abortion.

This September 28th, like every past September 28th for nearly twenty years, is Día por la Despenalización del Aborto en America Latina y el Caribe (Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean), organized by la Campaña 28 de septiembre (September 28th Campaign).

La campaña is made up of activists from five regional networks and 19 countries. The day is marked by festivals and protests that aim to draw attention to la campaña’s demands, which include the right to legal, free, safe and accessible abortions; the cessation of judicial persecution and imprisonment of women who choose to abort; and measures to prevent conscientious objections in public hospitals that create an obstacle to the exercise of rights or endanger the health or lives of women. The campaign also aims to remind Latin American governments that between 10 and 30 percent of the beds of OB/GYN services in Latin America and the Caribbean are occupied by women suffering from incomplete abortion.

Updated information on the campaign’s actions throughout the region is available on their website.