Abortion laws in Latin America show what the US could look like in a world without Roe v. Wade

  • President Donald Trump will soon announce his nominee for the Supreme Court. During the campaign, he said he would nominate judges to repeal Roe v. Wade, worrying abortion-rights advocates.
  • Paula Avila-Guillen, a reproductive rights expert, talked to Business Insider about the lessons from abortion bans in Latin America.
  • She said the results from those countries show that abortion restrictions don’t decrease abortions, they make them more unsafe.

President Donald Trump is slated to announce his nominee to replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy next week, and it has abortion-rights activists worried about what it could mean for the future of reproductive rights in the United States.

During his campaign, Trump promised to nominate judges who he hoped would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade case, which legalised abortion nationwide. He even went so far as to say that women who seek abortions should be criminally punished if it did become illegal again.

“This is not a drill,” Ilyse Hogue, director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told reporters last week. “The laws criminalizing abortion and certain kinds of contraception are moving through the courts.”

Since Roe became the law of the land in 1973, many states have passed restrictions slowly eroding abortion rights, leaving a patchwork of access across the country. These laws include incredibly strict standards for abortion clinics, requiring women to undergo ultrasounds or waiting periods, and banning the procedure entirely after a certain number of weeks into the pregnancy.

“The US is going the opposite way of the rest of the world. Most countries are realising these restrictions are useless,” Paula Avila-Guillen, a human rights legal expert and the director of Latin America initiatives for the Women’s Equality Center, told Business Insider. “In the United States … states are passing more restrictions and making it harder and harder to access services.”

Glenn Cohen, a constitutional expert at Harvard Law School, told Business Insider that while he thinks it unlikely for the court to overturn Roe anytime soon, Trump will almost definitely nominate a justice who will be “more anti-choice than Kennedy was.”

If Roe falls, Avila-Guillen said the landscape of abortion rights in the US could end up looking a lot more like Latin America.

‘Rich women have abortions; poor women die.’

Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, only three nations allow abortions without restrictions.

Six ban it altogether with no exemptions. Nine more only allow abortion for medical reasons, like saving the life of the mother.

“If there’s something the US can learn from Latin America, it is that restricting abortion does not reduce the number of abortions,” Avila-Guillen said. “It only increases maternal mortality, and disproportionately affects poor women and women of colour.”

According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, Latin America and the Caribbean have one of the world’s highest rates of per-capita abortion, 44 per 1,000 women, despite the restrictions in most countries. In 2014, 10% of maternal deaths resulted from unsafe abortions, with women living in poor, rural areas worst affected.

“Rich women have abortions; poor women die,” said Avila-Guillen, citing a common saying among activists in Latin America. “At the end of the day, women will always have abortions. It’s just a matter of deciding how.”

While wealthy women can easily travel to the United States or another country to get an abortion, poor women often have to resort to unsafe methods.

Every year, about 760,000 women are treated for complications from unsafe abortions.

A strategy Americans activists can learn from

Abortion supreme court pro choiceWin McNamee/Getty ImagesSupporters of women’s rights protest outside the US Supreme Court as the court issues a ruling on a California law related to abortion issues on June 26, 2018.

Avila-Guillen said the United States’ trajectory parallels Argentina’s. While both countries have Supreme Court rulings that expanded abortion rights, lawmakers have found ways to subvert them and make access more difficult.

Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled in 2012 to decriminalize abortions in cases of rape or a threat to the mother’s life, increasing abortion access and removing judicial approval for the procedure in those instances.

But inconsistent interpretations and enforcement at different levels of government have meant many women could not access the procedure, leading to over half a million women undergoing unsafe abortions every year.

In June, lawmakers in Argentina voted to legalise abortions before 14 weeks, in a major victory for advocates. The bill still has to go through another vote, but it looks like it will pass and become law.

Avila-Guillen said activists in the US looking to preserve and strengthen reproductive rights should focus on spreading the argument that making abortion illegal doesn’t make it stop – it just makes it more dangerous.

“The message in Argentina was very powerful,” she said. “It’s not about having an abortion or not having an abortion. It’s about having a safe and legal abortion or having a clandestine, illegal, and unsafe abortion. When a woman needs to terminate a pregnancy … they are going to do whatever in their power they can to do it.”

Drawing on her experience working in nations like El Salvador and the Dominican Republic that ban abortions in all circumstances, she warned that abortion-rights advocates in the United States must stay aware of what can happen if they don’t actively fight to uphold Roe.

Avila-Guillen described how in these countries, women who seek medical attention for complications resulting from trying to perform their own abortions can end up in jail, some on homicide charges with sentences of up to 25 years in prison.

“We are making women’s bodies into crime scenes,” she said. “I know there are people who say this will never happen in the United States … but the president said in his campaign said that women should be punished for having an abortion, so we are not as far as we think we are.”

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