"“It’s never easy to debate about abortion, because it means reaching the limits of when life begins and ends, determining the meaning of human experience and above all how much women should share what goes on in their bodies with others. (p. 13) (Ortiz Ortega, 2001)
From the description of the legal framework currently in force in the Latin American and Caribbean region regarding abortion, one could conclude that this is one of the key political spheres that determine the status and circumstances in which abortion is performed. Its implications are not only evident in the under-reporting and under-estimation of the scope of its occurrence, and its discriminatory nature, which helps exacerbate conditions of existing vulnerability and social inequality, unequal access to and quality of available health services and their consequences on women’s’ health and general well-being and that of their families. But they also govern the social, cultural, ideological and political scenario that prevails in the different societies in the region, and are expressed largely through the public debate surrounding this event.
Abundant material on the issue acknowledges that this is a complex problem that has given rise to an intense, continuous debate emerging from different forces and social actors. Their positions are usually antagonistic and polarized, but also share at least one common principle, sometimes insufficiently explained, in that none of the positions favors abortion per se. Dealing with the debate within this multifaceted framework, as a “problem”, requires, as several authors have so rightly pointed out, raising a number of questions: for whom is abortion a problem? What is the problem and what sort of problem is it? Who is responsible for deciding whether or not the practice of abortion is a problem? Who is responsible for the decision whether or not to seek an abortion? What are or should be the limits of the interference of the public or political sphere, particularly the state, in people’s private and intimate environment? Who are the social actors that exert the greatest influence on legitimizing (or not) this interference? What are their main arguments and positions? What are the relationships between these actors, and how are they linked to each other? (Castañeda Salgado, 2003; Kulczycki, 2003; Lamas 2003; Llovet and Ramos, 2001). As Oliveira and Rocha point out (2001), dealing with these questions necessarily entails venturing into the public and private spheres in societies profoundly marked by the age-old influence and power relations of the Catholic Church. This influence and power are expressed within a contemporary scenario characterized by a growing process of democratization and the progressive participation of organized civil society in public life. This scenario, in turn, demands the exercise of and respect for human rights in general and sexual and reproductive rights in particular, individuals’ free decisions concerning their intimate life (and therefore their reproductive life), along with greater equality in gender relations. There is obviously a need to redefine these public, private, religious, political and social spheres for the study of abortion, because it is within abortion, as an event that directly affects women’s reproductive health, that these factors overlap. (Oliveira and Rocha, 2001; Shepard, 2000).
The great paradox in the debate on abortion is that, although it is a “purely” female matter, one which directly affects women’s bodies and rights - as they are the ones that suffer the consequences and assume the emotional, physical, social, economic and legal costs of either an unplanned child or an abortion, assuming risks to their health and their lives- women are not taken into account when actions are defined and implemented to “solve” their problem (an unwanted pregnancy). The discussions and actions simply fall back on moral values and judgments, which leads to inappropriate and partial solutions. (Castañeda Salgado, 2003; Lamas, 2003; Kulczycki, 2003).
This chapter reviews the literature -primarily by progressive and feminist groups- that describes the debate on abortion in the region, and documents the main positions, opinions, perceptions and arguments that have been used throughout the past decade and a half. This section is opened with a brief description of the main actors and participants in the debate. It is worth mentioning that this debate emerges with greater or lesser force in the heat of specific events in the different Latin American and Caribbean countries. Examples include the presentation of a lawsuit before the Constitutional Court of Colombia opposing its 2005 abortion law; the case of the minor, Rosa, in Nicaragua in 2003, the case of Paulina, also underage, in Mexico in 1998, and the submission of the Bill for the Defense of Reproductive Health in Uruguay in 2003.
By debate, we mean the exchange of ideas or positions aimed at proving the superiority or veracity of one argument over another for the sake of achieving an agreement. In this respect it is useful to note that the arguments of the church hierarchy, derived from dogmatic principles, are not precisely reasoned. Nevertheless, in view of the fact that this is the ideology that traditionally opposes arguments in favor of safe abortion, it has been included as one of the voices of debate in the region. Conservative spokesmen, from organizations such as the civil sector, congress, the legal sector or healthcare etc., tend to base their arguments on unquestioned principles or values, like those that are the basis of the official Catholic Church position. The conservative position simplistically equates the result of conception with a human being from the very moment the ovum is fertilized. Thus, the various positions, opinions, perceptions and arguments, recorded in the literature, either they are based on the conservative stance of the church hierarchy that are briefly described here as recorded in material by progressive groups or authors, or they are based on various arguments and position in favor of ensuring that the interruptions of pregnancy must be safe for the women who have them. These latter arguments are this chapter’s main subject.
The literature included on opinion surveys, either among medical personnel or among other sectors of the population of the various countries, reflects the perceptions and attitudes these sectors have of abortion as well as specific conditions in which it is regarded as permissible to perform them. They also reflect the knowledge these sectors have of the legal status of abortion or what they imagine that status to be. They are included both because they partly express the way public opinion has changed regarding the issue and the possible effect of this on the consequences of debate, and also because their results can promote positions favoring conditions that will enable women to obtain access to risk-free abortion.
The chapter ends with two discussions: what consequences have the existing debates had for the legislative and legal abortion services spheres, and, as part of the conclusions, what transformations have there been in the arguments in favor of safe abortion? It also includes a number of recommendations and possible routes to follow drawn from the literature.