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Opinion Latin America’s abortion laws are a form of torture

People participate in a rally on the occasion of the first anniversary of the "panuelazo" (protest with handkerchief) for the legalization of abortion, in Buenos Aires on Feb. 19. (Marina Guillen/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Erika Guevara-Rosas is the Americas director at Amnesty International.

When two gynecologists performed an emergency Caesarean section on an 11-year-old rape survivor at the Eva Perón public hospital in Tucumán, Argentina, last week, they saved the girl from a potentially fatal situation authorities should never have put her in — one that is all too common across Latin America.

The girl was reportedly raped by her grandmother’s partner and admitted to a hospital in January after discovering that she was 19 weeks pregnant. She and her mother promptly requested an abortion, which is legal in Argentina in cases of rape or when the woman or girl’s life or health is in danger. But the authorities repeatedly refused to practice an abortion, using a range of delay tactics for almost five weeks to effectively force her into carrying the pregnancy to term against her and her mother’s will.

“Nobody in all the regional health system wanted to interrupt the pregnancy,” said Cecilia Ousset, one of the gynecologists who came to the hospital to perform the procedure after the staff there refused to do it on personal grounds. “It was just us, but we couldn’t abandon her,” she told Argentina’s Infobae news site. “… If we didn’t interrupt the pregnancy, this girl would have died.”

As a result of the ordeal, the girl suffered serious health problems — not to mention the psychological trauma stemming from the entire episode. This is nothing less than institutionalized violence that amounts to torture.

Sadly, this disturbing case is far from unique in Argentina or Latin America. In January, a 12-year-old rape survivor who was 24 weeks pregnant underwent an emergency Caesarean in Argentina’s Jujuy province. She, too, had been denied her legal right to abortion.

We frequently hear devastating stories of girls who are not only suffering endemic rates of sexual violence but are also forced to become mothers against their will. Their cases make headlines in national and international media outlets, and society is outraged about their testimonies.

A 2017 UNICEF report found that girls aged between 10 and 14 give birth every three hours in Argentina. According to #NiñasNoMadres, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations including Amnesty International and Planned Parenthood Global, approximately 2 million girls under 15 give birth worldwide every year, often as a result of sexual violence. Latin America and the Caribbean is the only region where that number is rising.

Yet the neglectful responses of the governments in the region have not changed. More than 97 percent of women of reproductive age in Latin America and the Caribbean live in countries with restrictive abortion laws, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Six of those countries have total bans on abortion, while nine others allow it only under very limited circumstances.

Latin America authorities have shown alarming negligence in failing to protect women and girls from gender-based violence. Instead of supporting survivors, they frequently revictimize them and deepen their suffering. By denying their right to legal abortion, they also put their rights to life and health at risk.

Women’s sexual and reproductive rights should not be negotiable. The U.N. Human Rights Council has recognized that denial of abortion in cases of rape inflicts such psychological and physical trauma that it can amount to torture under international law. Child pregnancy also reinforces educational and economic gender inequality, with 6 out of 10 pregnant girls in Argentina dropping out of school, thus greatly damaging their career prospects and lifetime earning potential.

But there is reason for optimism in Argentina. Last summer, hundreds of thousands of women marched through the streets of Buenos Aires, many wearing green handkerchiefs — the symbol of Latin America’s growing pro-choice movements — to demand access to safe and legal abortions. Although Argentina’s Senate voted against legalizing abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, a generation of brave young women succeeded in forcing a once-taboo topic onto the political agenda and into the national discourse for the first time. Change now feels inevitable.

Elsewhere in the region, Chile made progress by decriminalizing abortion under certain circumstances in 2017, while Ecuador’s National Assembly will soon vote on a bill to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape. (It is currently only permitted in Ecuador when a woman or girl’s life or health is at risk, or for victims of rape who are mentally disabled.)

Even El Salvador, which continues to imprison women under its draconian total ban on abortion, took some steps toward rectifying its mistakes last year by releasing Teodora Vásquez and Imelda Cortez, who were imprisoned for aggravated homicide and on a charge of attempted murder, respectively, after suffering pregnancy-related complications.

There is still much to be done to fully guarantee women and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights across Latin America. For lasting change, the introduction of comprehensive sexuality education must accompany legislative changes. But the tide is beginning to turn.

The region’s governments must accept that people will always seek abortions, regardless of the law. It is time for the authorities, instead of punishing women and girls or forcing them into deadly situations, to respect their human rights.

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