In-Depth: A Look At Latin America's Harsh Anti-Abortion Laws

In El Salvador, Chile, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Honduras, no woman is allowed to have an abortion—not after rape or incest, not even if her life is in danger. Other Latin countries are only slightly less restrictive. Some allow abortion in special cases, but in practice, it can be hard to gain approval. The United Nations recently condemned Peru’s government for in one case denying an abortion and emergency surgery to a 13-year-old rape victim. Only Uruguay, Cuba and Guyana now allow first-trimester abortions for all reasons, as does Mexico City.

Across the region, Amnesty International and other human rights groups have documented hundreds of cases where women died or were seriously injured because they were denied care, even in cases of miscarriage. “Unfortunately, doctors are criminalizing the women who arrive bleeding in hospitals,” GIRE lawyer Fernanda Díaz de León told me. 

One of the worst examples is the case of “Manuela” in El Salvador: after arriving at a hospital hemorrhaging blood, she was handcuffed to her bed and eventually sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for allegedly causing her own miscarriage. Doctors later discovered her bleeding was due to Hodgkin’s lymphoma—but it was too late: Manuela died in jail in 2010. 

In Hidalgo, Mexico, another woman had a bracelet identifying hers as a high-risk pregnancy, yet she was still arrested when she went to the hospital during a miscarriage.

Such cases effectively deny emergency health care to pregnant women. With doctors turning in their own patients, “the fear of prosecution is so huge that [women] prefer not to seek treatment,” said Mónica Arango, the regional head for Latin America and the Caribbean for the U.S. nonprofit Center for Reproductive Rights. 

If not to a hospital, where could women in my situation turn?