When first exploring topics for our final paper I was immediately drawn to something related to reproductive rights. My parents had lived in Brazil for a while and the Zika virus is something that was particularly concerning for that region. I decided one of the first things I needed to do is look at the current reproductive policies and whether they were sufficient to help combat the spread of the Zika virus. Quite frankly, I was very disappointed at what I found and how little control women actually have over their reproductive health.
While much of the media attention regarding reproductive rights in Latin America is through the frame of the Zika virus, it is important to look at the history of this issue. Women have not been able to control their own bodies and reproduction in these areas. Abortion as well as contraception has been refused to many women. Just as concerning is the extremely high number of children born to underage mothers. Sexual education is sub par in many of these regions and some studies show that up to half of unmarried women between the ages of 15 and 24 are not using birth control and pregnancy among this age group has remained high, according to the academic article “Sexual and reproductive health and rights in Latin America: an analysis of trends, commitments and achievements” by Emma Richardson and Anne-Emanuelle Birn. The lack of reproductive rights and sexual education can largely be blamed on the culture of patriarchy in these Latin American countries. Women, especially in comparison to me, lack the ability to control their own bodies. The men in each country run nearly every aspect of life from government to households. This is particularly true for poorer communities where women seem to suffer the most, including indigenous women. The article mentions that in Guatemala, for example, indigenous women are twice as likely to die from causes related to pregnancy.
In many countries in the region, not only are there extreme restrictions on contraception and abortion, but women can even be jailed for having a miscarriage which is examined in the Guardian article “Zika epidemic restrictions promote ‘violence against women’ warns report” by Jonathon Watts. In El Salvador, for example, women can face up to 50 years in prison for having a miscarriage. Often times women who lose their child will be accused of murdering it or that the women did something to end their pregnancy. In El Salvador, it is common practice for the nurses and medical personnel to call the police right after a woman who has miscarried arrives, no matter what state she is in. I found this particularly hard to believe. I often criticize policy-makers in the US for their agendas against women, and I still will but it does not come close to jailing women for having a miscarriage. If anything, this makes me want to fight harder for the rights of women in the US to prevent this kind of extreme punishment. Women deserve to have control over their bodies in any context.
While some claim that these laws are put in place to protect unborn babies, it is all too often at the expense of the women’s lives. An Op Ed written by Purima Mane gives staggering statistics about Latin America’s maternal mortality rate. The average number of deaths is around 80 out of 100,000 births but this varies greatly between countries. Uruguay for example has only 29 maternal deaths out of 100,000 births while Haiti has 350 deaths per 100,000 births. It is no coincidence that in countries with the strictest abortion laws, the most maternal deaths occur. This is because of the amount of women who die having unsafe abortions in these countries. Only 5 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 have access to legal abortions and 30 percent of women become pregnant before entering their 20s.
Despite the growing issue regarding young parenthood, these countries have not made an effort to make laws protecting these populations. In Peru, for example, any kind of sex between people 18 to 24 years old is illegal and there are no laws prohibiting discrimination based on pregnancy or HIV status, which is also becoming a larger problem for this age group according to the article “Sexual and reproductive health and rights in Latin America: an analysis of trends, commitments, and achievements.“ Policies regarding contraceptives and abortions also do not reflect the values and beliefs of many of their citizens. As an effort to protect younger girls from sexual abuse, many nations have lowered the age of consensual sex but because many girls under this age were already having sex. When doctors find out these girls are sexually active they are not able to give them contraceptive and instead have to violate the trust the patient has for them and report the situation to the police. Furthermore, in a 2011 study that spanned across Brazil, Nicaragua, Chile, and Mexico, most respondents believed that these should be more liberal laws regarding abortions. Under current laws, most Latin American countries prohibit any sort of abortion with only the exception of the mother’s life being in danger. Participants of the study said that there should be more instances where abortion is allowed.
Some countries are so extreme that the will not allow abortions even in cases or rapes or for young girls. While in many countries, like Brazil, abortion is allowed if the mother’s life is in danger, this threshold is very subjective and there are many cases that should qualify but do not in the Latin American justice system. Paraguay recently made news for not allowing a 10 year old girl to have an abortion. Child became pregnant after her stepfather began sexually abusing her. Abortion laws in Paraguay prohibit the act unless the mother’s life is in danger. Another Guardian article discusses how activists like Lilian Soto argue that any girl who becomes pregnant under the age of 13 should be allowed to have an abortion because the mother’s life is indeed in danger. Not only was the 10 year old girl forced to carry out her pregnancy, but she was forced to stay in prison like conditions until giving birth and her mother was arrested for not caring for her daughter. This case is not abnormal. In the Dominican Republic 2012 a 16 year old girl with cancer died because she was not allowed to get an abortion in order to be able to receive treatment for her leukemia. While it is easy to argue that the lives of both of these girls were at risk, neither were allowed to have an abortion. As a result, one child is born to a mother who is still a child herself and cannot possibly be prepared for motherhood and another child who now does not have a mother at all. Reproductive laws prior to Zika were harmful to women but it appears that despite the even greater risk, there have not been any changes made.
When I first heard about these strict policies I knew that it must be related to Catholicism. I myself am Catholic and while I have relatives who follow the church’s lead on issues like contraception, I think the majority of Catholic people in the US would not have any problem with birth control. I began wondering why it would be such an issue in this region but not in other Catholic communities and was surprised to find out that most of the people in Latin America believe contraception should be available and abortion should be allowed in some cases. The church, however, has such a strong grip on Latin America politics that policies do not yet match the views of the citizens. While these human rights violations have always been occurring in Latin America, it was not until recently that these issues have been put on a stage in front of the world. Catholic leaders and government officials urge women to not get pregnant within the next couple of years. However, with a ban on safe abortions, a lack of sexual education, and the difficulty of getting contraceptives, what these leaders are really saying is that women need to abstain from sex.
Author Maddie Birr compares this phenomenon to religious conservatism in the southern United States where girls are taught they should abstain from sex until marriage, a heterosexual marriage specifically, and there is hardly any other information about sex adolescence are given. Abstinence only education programs in this region and other parts of the United States have been greatly criticized. While schools teach that this is the only method to completely avoid pregnancy, these states tend to have some of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation. It simply does not make sense to expect teens not to get pregnant by trying to avoid the issue all together. She points out that Mississippi has the highest rate of teen pregnancy and Texas has the third highest rate. However, the Zika virus is on a significantly larger scale where many people do not have privileges like good doctors, still being able to access birth control, etc. Despite these facts, governments are still expecting abstaining from sex to be a viable option to stop the spread of the Zika virus. Despite the fact that international organizations are calling for policy changes, any sort of changes seem unlikely until the policies of the church also changes.
Birr, Maddie. “Column: Zika virus could help women gain reproductive rights.”
UWIRE Text 24 Feb. 2016: 1. Infotrac Newsstand. Web.
Mane, Purnima. “OP-ED: LATIN AMERICA LAGS ON REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS.”Global
Information NetworkAug 06 2013. ProQuest. Web.
Richardson, Emma, and Anne-Emanuelle Birn. “Sexual and reproductive health and
rights in Latin America: an analysis of trends, commitments and achievements.” Reproductive Health Matters Nov. 2011: 183+. General OneFile. Web. 2 May 2016.
Watts, Jonathan, and Irma Oviedo. “Pregnant 10-year-old Rape Victim Denied
Abortion by Paraguayan Authorities.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2015. Web. 01 May 2016
Watts, Jonathan. “Zika Epidemic Restrictions Promote ‘violence against Women’
Warns Report.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2016. Web.