Why you should care
These innovative but controversial initiatives could serve as a model for abortion battles elsewhere.
There is no word in Spanish for miscarriage. The term aborto espontaneo, which translates to spontaneous abortion, is the language used when pregnancy in Latin America ends suddenly. But as popular opinion in the region — home to some of the world’s most draconian legislation against abortion — slowly moves away from rigid opposition, anti-abortion actors are changing their language and tactics to fight back.
For decades, anti-abortion campaigns in Latin America have been built around principles outlined in the Bible, and values of morality and decency, says Fernanda Doz Costa, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Americas. Now, a new generation of activists opposed to abortion has adopted a rights-based approach arguing in favor of both the mother’s and the child’s rights, or that abortion can be avoided in many cases without the mother having to raise the child.
Lawmakers in Argentina, Paraguay and Panama are proposing legislation that would allow the adoption of fetuses before birth, or would pressure hospitals into minimizing the number of abortions they carry out. In Paraguay, campaigners are trying to create a register for fetuses that die before birth. In Panama, Deputy Corina Cano is proposing a bill that would require hospitals to preserve for the 72 hours the remains of fetuses that die before birth.
It’s the new front line of an offensive, and going toward the connection of adoption and abortion.
Sonia Corrêa, Brazilian researcher
And in Argentina, Deputy Marcela Campagnoli of the ruling Cambiemos coalition has proposed to Congress that fetuses from unwanted pregnancies be born prematurely — after their 20th week — via cesarean section and then incubated and adopted by nonbiological parents. Campagnoli did not respond to requests for an interview. But in March 2018, she told a radio channel that she wanted to balance the needs of “the mother who does not want to have the child” and her party’s opposition to the “death of a child.”
“This is all over the place now,” says Sonia Corrêa, a Brazilian researcher and founder of multiple nonprofit initiatives working on gender and sexual rights. “It’s the new front line of an offensive, and going toward the connection of adoption and abortion.”
These unconventional proposals come at a time when, according to a survey by Chilean polling firm Latinobarómetro, more people in 18 major Latin American nations feel abortion is justified (compared to 2007). But a majority of people across all countries in the region remain opposed to the practice. El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic already have complete bans on abortion.
Corrêa is convinced most of the proposed legal initiatives in the region won’t become law but says that they still have a cumulative effect. “What these laws aim at is to give the fetus rights primacy over women’s rights and pave the way for total prohibition of abortion,” she says.
That’s beginning to happen in Brazil, where a new resolution from the Federal Council of Medicine this month places precedence on the rights of the unborn child over those of the mother. In practice, the new norm — which is in force but is being contested — means that medical procedures can now be carried out on women against their wishes if deemed to be in the interest of the fetus. This resolution could set a worrying precedent for other nations, some doctors worry.
Across the region, local anti-abortion movements are often backed by religious, U.S.-based organizations such as Human Life International. But while some carry out mass street protests against the legalization of abortion, there are less visible forces at work too. That includes encouraging medical practitioners to adopt a “conscientious objectors” position against abortion in countries where the practice is legal in some cities or some circumstances. “As far as conscientious objection to abortion, euthanasia, etc., we always support religious freedom,” says Deborah M. Piroch, director of public relations at HLI. “But do we craft legislation? No, that’s not our focus.”
Such campaigns have played out in Mexico, Colombia, Chile and Argentina in recent years, some of them through the global anti-abortion movement 40 Days for Life. “It’s important to understand that the Catholic Church has throughout its long trajectory adapted its discourse to different circumstances,” says Corrêa.
In El Salvador, Sí a la Vida (Yes to Life), an anti-abortion group, adopts a less confrontational approach. In late 2017, it decided to establish 16 centers around the small Central American nation to offer women looking for ways to illegally terminate pregnancies another way out. These centers offer emotional support and basic infant care as well as courses for young mothers. Sí a la Vida, which is affiliated with HLI, did not respond to requests from OZY for an interview.
These new anti-abortion initiatives “want to play a more democratic, secular game and argue it from a rights-based approach,” says Amnesty International’s Doz Costa. “We feel that what they have done is to use our strategies — that of nonprofits.”
Now it’s time for the abortion-rights movement to catch up, says Corrêa. “The question we should be asking is … why it has taken us so long to capture and understand those changes.”