Given the high number of unwanted pregnancies, it is worth asking what reasons lead adolescents and young women to interrupt their gestation. According to the literature on the subject, there are diverse factors that intertwine within the complex and extended issue of abortion.
This factor, particularly among young women belonging to the most disadvantaged social classes, largely explains the practice of abortion within this sector of the population. In situations of economic and social dependence, abortion continues to be the only solution for adolescents facing an unforeseen pregnancy who are unable to assume the responsibility of raising a child on their own. But other, related circumstances also lead them to resort to this practice. Family disapproval and the social and moral stigmatization that still weighs on unmarried pregnant women may also contribute in this practice. As Faúndes and Barzelatto indicate (2005): “birth out of wedlock may be socially acceptable among the poor in Latin America, but it is certainly not among middle or upper class families”. According to these authors, in this event, abortion may be used to save the honor of the family and the woman.
Gender identities and roles, linked to poverty conditions, also play a key part in this issue. In a study undertaken in greater Buenos Aires, Geldstein and Pantelides say: “neither egalitarian gender images or careful behavior are possible in the objective conditions imposed by extreme poverty”. The authors remind us that girls living in poverty are exposed to experiences that devalue them, which, “framed in the double subordination of class and gender, tend to reinforce and reproduce risky sexual behavior”. The authors state that “careful and risky behaviors, as well as the images that predispose them [are closely linked to] the traditional gender images that imply the lack of alternative life projects to those of motherhood and a female identity stripped of power and incapable of governing her own life .…”. Conversely, modern images which imply a symmetrical conception of gender relations and a female identity with the ability to make their own self decisions are accompanied by life plans… that must be preserved through preventive sexual behavior.” (Geldstein and Pantelides, 2001).
Sosa Sánchez (2005) conducted a qualitative study along the same lines in a school in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca, on young women aged 14 to 19 enrolled in high school and junior high school. The research shows the persistence of cultural and social stereotypes that define femininity, including the high value placed on motherhood as the central attribute of women. For this same reason, adds the author, many women accept that the act of completing an unwanted pregnancy may involve her suffering, given the “social assumption that any ‘normal’ woman always wants to be a mother under any circumstances”. Added to this is the idea that the woman is the only person responsible for her pregnancy, or its termination, without consideration for the burden of psychic and emotional violence as well as the stigmatization, responsibility and moral penalization suffered by those that seek abortion.
The woman’s attitude towards an unforeseen pregnancy will depend largely on the reaction of her partner and the type of existing relationship, factors that are closely related to her living conditions. The male’s participation is important in the decision whether to abort, as are the responsibility he assumes for the expenses involved in resorting to this resource and for coping with the implications that this event will have for the couple’s life plan. One should bear in mind that without the support of either partner or family, young women often do not have any alternative other than abortion to protect their own future (Faúndes and Barzelatto, 2005).
Extension of schooling and the growing presence of young women in economic activities, both representing alternative life plans, also contribute to women’s resorting to abortion in the event of an unforeseen or unwanted pregnancy, in order to delay maternity.
As mentioned in earlier paragraphs, early unprotected sexual activity, poor sex education, and lack of information and access to contraceptive methods, are factors that help explain unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (Almeyda Castro, 2001). Apropos of this, several authors emphasize the importance of the increase in premarital conceptions: “The likelihood that a woman will have a pregnancy before a union and before the age of 25 increases insofar as women are younger and is also more frequent in the urban than the rural setting” (18% in the urban sphere as opposed to 14% in the rural one) (CONAPO, 2000).
Adolescents that decide to have an active sexual life, sometimes acquire information and contraceptives from their peers. In other words, they obtain knowledge from people who, like themselves, are uninformed or only partially informed. Generally speaking, parents and teachers do not educate young people to enable them to have a safe sex life, or to have sufficient knowledge of the means of preventing sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancies. Teachers often restrict themselves to transmitting information on sex to their students from a physiological perspective, which is sometimes complex and insufficient. There is usually very little information on the risks of having unprotected sex. This situation is observed in many Latin American and Caribbean countries. This is compounded by the difficulties faced by young people in obtaining access to contraceptive methods and protection from STDs. Social and cultural prejudices prevent adolescents from knowing about and understanding their own sexuality, in addition to limiting their capacity to choose alternatives to early motherhood and fatherhood.
Although in the majority of Latin American and Caribbean countries, 90% or more of adolescents supposedly know of at least one contraceptive method, rates of use are low (Blanc and Way, 1998). Knowledge in itself does not guarantee the correct use of these methods. Economic, social, cultural and institutional barriers also play an important role in access to contraception for this group of the population. The impossibility of meeting the demands for contraceptive methods is cited in literature on the subject as one of the elements that places adolescents at risk of an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy and therefore, of resorting to abortion to end it. Then, as mentioned earlier, such abortions are often carried out in conditions that threaten the adolescents’ health and even their lives.
Women do not always perceive the risk of pregnancy or of contracting STDs, particularly during their first sexual experiences. In such situations, they often do not think it is important to take preventive measures. This occurs particularly in the case of very young women, whose sexual practices are often irregular. For them, contraceptive use may appear superfluous. Often, adolescents do not use any protective method in their sexual relations because such experiences occur spontaneously. This fact was borne out by a study conducted in Colombia, in which 63% of the women consulted in Bogota and 72% of those in Cali said that they did not use any contraceptive method during their first sexual intercourse, due to the fact that it was unforeseen. (Florez et al. 2004). In Guadeloupe, it was also found that one out of three women became pregnant during their first sexual encounter (Guengant et al., 1993).
Moreover, in the majority of developing countries, male domination continues to exist, therefore often making difficult for women to convince their partners to use a preventive method, particularly condoms. As has been pointed out, contraceptive use reflects the couple’s capacity to dialogue. In this respect, women are usually at a disadvantage, particularly when they have sex with older men.
As stated above, violence and sexual coercion, particularly rape, are common events in the lives of many adolescents, and they lead to a large number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions (United Nations Population Fund, 2000). In a study conducted in 2000 in Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, the British Virgin Islands, Dominique, Granada, Guyana, Jamaica and Santa Lucia, the Pan American Health Organization reported that nearly half of the adolescents interviewed between the ages of 10 and 18 who had had sex, declared that their first experience with sexual intercourse was through force (Halcón et al., 2000). Sexual relations under these circumstances may have short and long term implications. They may have psychological, social and physical consequences, such as unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and infections, in addition to unwanted children (Jejeebhoy and Bott, 2003).
In Mexico, like in most underdeveloped countries, rape is a social problem, particularly worrisome in the case of adolescents. In a study of women treated for sexual assault in this country conducted in 1995, 54% of the participants were under 20. In all cases, they were single women who had been the object of sexual abuse, and even rape, in similar proportions, by a relative or friend (in 20% to 21% of cases), a stranger in 46% of cases, or by some other person in 13% of cases (Martínez Ayala et al. , 1999; Billings et al., 2002). In another study on adolescents’ views on abortion, for which teenagers from a secondary school and a junior high school in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca were consulted, it was found that most males and females agreed with interrupting pregnancy in the event of rape (Sosa Sánchez, 2005).