Would Legalization Reduce Abortion in Latin America?

Steven Mosher
By Joseph A. D'Agostino

PRI Weekly Briefing
6 December 2004
Vol. 6 / No. 38
Reproduced with Permission

International pro-abortion advocates sometimes argue that legalizing abortion in countries where it is now illegal would actually reduce the number of abortions. This myth was pushed in an article called "Illegal Abortions Rampant in Latin America" by Jen Ross, first posted on "Women's eNews" November 28 (http://www.womensenews.org). Ross also calls for a comprehensive social revolution on the grounds that this would lead to a lower number of abortions. The article and one of its primary sources provide an instructive example of how anti-life and anti-family groups combine faulty statistics, anecdotal evidence, and non sequiturs to promote their agenda.

Ross regrets that abortion is currently illegal in Latin America outside of Cuba and Puerto Rico, but goes on to make it clear that for feminists the abortion issue is not just about terminating a pregnancy. It is about a complete revamping of the relationship between Latin men and women of the kind that has produced such disastrous results in the West since the 1960s. "Reducing unwanted pregnancies requires cultural changes, Mariana Schkolnik, a consultant with the social development division of the U.N.'s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, is quoted as saying. "This includes adjusting traditional gender roles, erasing the social stigma attached to abortion, and changing outdated family laws," the article says. Ross attributes Latin American abortions to gender inequality: "In analyzing why—despite tough legal penalties, health risks and the predominant influence of the Catholic Church—Latin America's abortion rates so high [sic], some people put the blame on gender inequality." But no one disputes that gender inequality is on the decline in Latin America while the abortion rate is higher than ever before, or close to it. Go figure.

Ross also tries to couch her position as an inherently pro-life one. "But legalizing abortion is also key, says Schkolnik, to prevent so many women from dying," Ross reports. "She points out that where abortion is legal—such [sic] Europe and North America — the percentage of abortions performed has actually gone down. She says that's because legalization is usually accompanied by informed access to public health, education and family planning." These numbers, of course, fail to take into account the tens of millions of abortions caused by abortifacient contraceptives, the so-called morning-after pill, and RU-486.

Even more to the point, so far in Latin America, there is no proof that increased access to contraception and education has led to lower abortion rates. A 1996 report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute called "An Overview of Clandestine Abortion in Latin America," relied upon heavily by Ross for her article, says, "Improved contraceptive services and improved contraceptive use can go a long way toward reducing levels of unplanned pregnancy in Latin America. There is evidence, for example, that abortion rates may be leveling off or declining in parts of Colombia and Mexico, two countries in which contraceptive use is widespread. Nevertheless, studies indicate that even where family planning services are available and accessible, many women have difficulty using methods consistently and effectively, and contraceptive discontinuation and failure rates can be high." Notice the phrasing, that abortion rates "may" be declining in "parts" of countries. Other studies have indicated that abortion rates actually rise with the introduction of contraception, because of the "contraceptive mentality" that this fosters.

Regardless, the institute says abortions have become safer for Latin American women (though not for Latin American children): "Most health professionals believe that the risks of complications from induced abortion are lower in Latin America today than they were in the past. Reasons for the reduced risk are that more women have access to safe medical procedures, more women are aware of the need to seek medical treatment quickly when a complication arises and more practitioners—even those without medical training—routinely prescribe antibiotics for their patients."

The article also claims that abortion rates in Europe, where abortion is legal, are lower than in Latin America, where it is illegal—and suggests that this proves that legalization will reduce abortions. But Carlos Polo, director of PRI's Latin American office located in Lima, Peru, scoffs at this claim, rejecting the feminist abortion statistics as greatly exaggerated. The Guttmacher report says there were 271,000 abortions in Peru in 1989 and an estimated four million in Latin America as a whole in 1996. "Feminists now say there are 410,000 a year in Peru," said Polo. "They take the real number and multiply it by ten to account for the abortions women won't admit to. They have no proof." According to the Peruvian Health Ministry, says Polo, there are only about 30,000 abortions a year in Peru, less than 10% of the number claimed by the feminists.

The Women's eNews article also says that 5,000 women die from abortion each year in Latin America. Polo thinks this highly unlikely, noting that in Peru, according to the Health Ministry, 542 Peruvian women died in 2002 from complications related to pregnancy and only 5% of those deaths occurred as a result of induced abortion. So a total of 27 women died in "one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with what the feminists say is one of the highest abortion rates in the region," he said. Peru, with 28 million people, has about 6% of Latin America's population. This suggests that the actual number of Latin American women who die each year from abortion is closer to 500 than 5,000.

The Guttmacher Institute boasts that a "culture of contraception" has taken hold in certain Latin American countries such as Mexico and Colombia and is becoming more entrenched everywhere in the region. PRI and its Latin American office will continue to work to rebuild the Culture of Life there and elsewhere — including trumpeting the common-sense truth that legalizing abortions will lead to more of them.