Latin America must stop forcing pregnant girls into deadly situations

By Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

When two gynecologists performed an emergency caesarean on an 11-year-old rape survivor at the Eva Perón public hospital in Tucumán, Argentina, early last Wednesday morning, they saved the girl from a potentially fatal and all-too-common situation that authorities should never have put her in.

“Nobody in all the regional health system wanted to interrupt the pregnancy,” said 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.” 

The girl from Tucumán province was admitted into hospital in January after discovering that she was 19 weeks pregnant after her grandmother’s partner raped her.

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.

The girl suffered serious health problems as a result of the ordeal. These effects are nothing other than institutionalized violence and amount to torture.

We hear every day the devastating stories of girls who are not only suffering endemic rates of sexual violence but are also forced to become mothers.

Sadly, this disturbing case is far from unique in Argentina or the wider Latin America and Caribbean region.

In January, another 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 hear every day the devastating stories of girls who are not only suffering endemic rates of sexual violence but are also forced to become mothers. Their cases make headlines in national and international media outlets, and society is outraged about their testimonies, but the negligent responses of the governments in the region have not changed.

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 NGOs led by the likes of Amnesty International and Planned Parenthood Global, approximately two million girls aged 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.

More than 97% 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 most others only allow it under very limited circumstances.

The authorities in Argentina and other countries across Latin America 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 human rights.

Women’s sexual and reproductive rights should not be negotiable. Denial of abortion in cases of rape, or when the woman or girl’s life or health is at risk, 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 six out of every ten pregnant girls in Argentina dropping out of school, thus greatly damaging their career prospects and lifetime earning potential.

Women’s sexual and reproductive rights should not be negotiable. Denial of abortion in cases of rape, or when the woman or girl’s life or health is at risk, inflicts such psychological and physical trauma that it can amount to torture under international law.

But there is reason for optimism in Argentina. Last summer, hundreds of thousands of women marched through the streets of Buenos Aires 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 the national discourse for the first time. Change now feels inevitable.

Elsewhere in the region, Chile has made progress by decriminalizing abortion under certain circumstances in 2017, while Ecuador’s Congress is soon to vote on a bill to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape (it is currently only permitted when a woman or girl’s life or health is at risk).

Even El Salvador, which continues to imprison women under its draconian total ban on abortion, took some steps towards rectifying past mistakes last year by releasing Teodora Vazquez and Imelda Cortez, who were respectively imprisoned for aggravated homicide and attempted murder 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 – 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. Instead of punishing women and girls or forcing them into deadly situations, it is time for the authorities to respect their human rights.

This article was originally published by the Washington Post