Two Tragic Cases Throw a Harsh Spotlight on Latin America's Abortion Laws

Campaña para futuras madres. Foto en Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Campaign for mothers-to-be. Image on Flickr by Prefectura de la Provincia del Guayas (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Two cases of rape resulting in pregnancy thousands of miles apart have once again have put a face to a taboo topic in Latin America: abortion.

The first involves a Salvadoran woman who was pardoned after serving seven years of a 30-year sentence for aggravated homicide related to a stillborn birth. The second is a 10-year old girl in Paraguay who is pregnant after she was allegedly raped by her stepfather. Authorities have denied her an abortion.

Latin America has some of the most restrictive regulations on abortion in the world. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Suriname and Chile ban it completely. Guatemala, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay allow it only when the mother's life is threatened. The only countries in the region where women are free to abort are Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico (but only in that nation's capital) and some countries in the Caribbean.

Salvadoran Carmen Guadalupe Vásquez Aldana was 18 years old when she experienced the events that landed her in prison, according to the campaign Las17. She was one of 17 women, known as #Las17, who were imprisoned for aggravated homicide of their newborns. Their defenders argue that the women lost their newborns due to a range complications beyond their control, and that authorities never pursued the truth and instead treated them as guilty from the start:

Había empezado a trabajar como empleada doméstica desde muy corta edad. Cuando ocurrieron los hechos […] trabajaba como empleada con un sueldo de $80 al mes, durmiendo en casa de sus patronos, en un cuarto que ni siquiera tenía luz eléctrica.
Al poco de empezar a trabajar sufrió una violación, producto de la cual quedó embarazada. […] Su vientre no le creció y su misma patrona no se había dado cuenta de que estuviera embarazada.
Tuvo un parto de madrugada en el pequeño cuarto que tenía en la casa donde trabaja. Asustada por que no esperaba ese parto y con miedo a perder el trabajo por ello, no pidió ayuda ni tuvo ninguna atención médica, y según ella manifestó la criatura nació sin vida. Tuvo una fuerte hemorragia y su patrona la encontró sangrando a la mañana siguiente. Guadalupe se levantó y trabajó en las tareas domésticas mientras seguía sangrando. Al mediodía, como no paraba la hemorragia, su patrona la llevo al Hospital de San Bartolo, donde no la atendieron hasta las 8:20 de la noche. El médico manifestó que tenía una fuerte hemorragia y el propio personal sanitario del Hospital la denunció a la policía por aborto y la detuvieron.

She started working as domestic worker at very young age. When the events took place […] she worked as housemaid earning $80 per month, sleeping in her employers’ house, in a bedroom that didn't have electric light.
Just after she started to work there, she was raped, and as result, she became pregnant. […] Her womb hadn't grown and not even her employer noticed she was pregnant.
She went into labor in the early morning in the small room she had in the house she worked at. Frightened as she didn't expect the birth and afraid of losing her job because of it, she didn't ask for any medical attention and, according to her declaration, hers had been a stillbirth. She suffered heavy hemorrhage and her employer found her bleeding the next morning. Guadalupe got up and carried on with household chores while still bleeding. By noon, as the bleeding hadn't stopped, her employer took her to San Bartolo Hospital, where she remained unattended until 8:20 in the evening. The doctor said she had a heavy hemorrhage and the staff of the hospital turned her into the police for abortion and she was detained.

El Salvador's laws regarding abortion weren't always so strict. As NACLA reports:

In El Salvador, a powerful pro-life movement led by the organization Yes to Life began campaigning for the total criminalization of abortion during a planned revision of the penal code in 1994. The right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) political party allied with the pro-life movement, and in 1997, voted into law a new criminal code. The new code eliminated the previous law’s allowance of abortion in cases of rape or grave fetal deformation, or when it would save the health of the mother.

The changes to the code included declaring that life begins at conception and the state must protect that life.

The story took an unexpected turn on January 12, when the Commission of Justice and Human Rights in El Salvador's Legislative Assembly unanimously ruled to pardon Carmen Guadalupe. Hers is the first pardon granted in the history of El Salvador to a woman accused of abortion and gives hope to 16 other women who are still in prison.

In a press conference she had after being released, she said, “I thank God as finally justice was served, I declare that I am innocent.”

At the time, the news echoed on Twitter:

El Salvador Congress grants pardon for one of the 17 women imprisoned for abortion.

Guadalupe's release is an important step towards justice for many women.

Photo: “When I was in prison, I met other women like me who were being treated unjustly. I want to send them a message of hope and strength. I want them to know that the world is paying attention to their cases.” -Guadalupe

In Paraguay, a ten-year old girl represents another tragic side of the same drama. The child is five-months pregnant, allegedly raped by her stepfather Gilberto Benítez Zárate, who was finally detained by police after several weeks on the run. He is currently behin​d bars at the Tacumbú prison in Asuncion.

Authorities have denied the girl an abortion despite her mother's requests, and some medical experts fear that pregnancy at such a young age could endanger her life. The girl's mother –who reportedly raised the alarm last year that the stepfather was abusing her daughter, but police did nothing — was also arrested, accused of obstructing the investigation by giving false information about the stepfather.

As the website ActitudFem reports:

Tiene 10 años, pesa 36 kilogramos, apenas alcanza el 1.40 de estatura y está embarazada luego de que, se presume, su padrastro abusara de ella. Sin embargo, las autoridades paraguayas se niegan rotundamente a que la menor aborte.
El 21 de abril la menor llegó al Hospital Materno Infantil de Trinidad de Asunción acompañada de su mamá. La pequeña se quejaba de un dolor estomacal.
Pero cuando los médicos la revisaron descubrieron que en realidad la pequeña tenía 21 semanas de embarazo.

She is ten years old, weighs 36 kilograms (79 pounds) and she hardly rises up to 1.40 meters (4 feet 7 inches) and she is pregnant after her stepfather allegedly raped her. Paraguayan authorities, however, have rejected outright for the minor to have an abortion.
On April 21, the girl arrived to the Trinity Child's Hospital of Asunción with her mother. The girl was complaining about a stomachache.
But when the doctors evaluated her, they found out the girl was 21-weeks pregnant.

Paraguayan Minister of Health Antonio Barrios has expressed his total disagreement with an abortion. Furthermore, he has criticized the public campaign pressing the country's authorities to authorize the procedure.

Their refusal has sparked heated debate around the world. Amnesty International has called on authorities to allow the girl an abortion :

Amnesty International has issued an Urgent Action and its supporters have been writing letters to the Minister of Public Health and Welfare and the Attorney General calling on them to intervene to protect the girl and guarantee her human rights.

The organization has launched an online petition with the name Niña en peligro (Girl in danger), which currently has more than 5,000 signatures.

On Twitter, some users called on Paraguay's President Horacio Cartes to act while others repeated the news:

A ten-year-old girl raped by her stepfather, pregnant, she is forced to continue with her pregnancy (Paraguay). #ChildInDanger

Juan A. Torres, a social worker and healthcare activist in Spain, tweeted Amnesty International's note to his 31,000 followers:

Demand that Horacio Cartes guarantee health to a ten-year old raped and pregnant girl.

According to official figures, two girls between 10 and 14 years old give birth every day in Paraguay, most as a result of sexual abuse from their family environment. The World Health Organization puts the number of abortions carried out each year in Latin America at four million, and the majority of them are performed amid unhealthy conditions, especially in low income areas.


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