Global, Global Investigates

Global Investigates: The influence of religion over the sexual and reproductive freedoms of Latin America

Abortion and contraceptive practices in Latin American states have failed to garner moral legitimacy partly due to the dominance of Roman Catholicism in both culture and politics. In these regions, this general suspicion and distrust has led to a failure to recognise reproductive rights as human rights, resulting in an estimated 4.2 million clandestine abortions per year.

Although officially classed as secular, Latin America is home to the largest Roman Catholic population in the world. Following the Spanish colonisation of the Americas in the 16th century, they were forced to adopt Catholicism as their dominant religion. While Feminist movements were picking up speed in Europe and North America in the 1960s and 1970s, Latin American society was fighting right-wing dictatorships and civil wars. Where many Western countries have access to free sexual healthcare services and are now moving on to issues such as hygiene equality in the abolition of the ‘tampon tax’, much of Latin America is still fighting for basic reproductive and sexual liberties.

Of the estimated six million people thought to be living in El Salvador, widely regarded as one of the most restrictive regions, five million are thought to follow Catholicism. Article 26 of their Constitution explicitly recognises the “juridical personality of the Catholic Church”, meaning it has legal status to direct the country’s legislation, including their sexual and reproductive laws.

Under the country’s 1956 Penal Code, abortion was justified if necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant woman. This was, however, revoked under the Nationalist Republican Alliance’s bill in 1998 which withdrew all grounds under which abortion was then permitted. El Salvador went on to amend their Constitution in 1999, recognising human life from the moment of conception, not dissimilar to the Hippocratic Principles upheld by the Catholic Church: “I will show the utmost respect for every human life from fertilisation to natural death and reject abortion that deliberately takes a unique human life”. 

As a result of this restrictive legislation, many pregnant women have been denied a termination despite threat to their own lives. One such example is ‘Beatriz’, a 22-year-old pregnant woman with a non-viable anencephalic foetus, meaning scans revealed the developing infant didn’t have a brain. El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled against the abortion despite the potentially fatal problems she had developed as a result of her pregnancy: kidney disease and lupus. The inter-American Court of Human Rights intervened meaning she underwent an emergency caesarean at five months.

However, not all cases have been granted international interference. 33-year-old mother of two ‘Manuela’ suffered complications during her birth in 2013 and was convicted of murder after her miscarriage. Suffering at the hands of a system which punishes those in less fortunate socioeconomic circumstances, she lacked the forensic evidence necessary to prove she had not intentionally terminated her pregnancy. She was sentenced without a lawyer and died in prison of advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma a year later, a condition which should have been treated during her postnatal care.

The handful of Salvadoran Catholics who favour legalising abortion lack influence, as the Catholic Church predominantly condemns pro-choice advocates. Under current law, the punishment for abortion in El Salvador is up to eight years in prison. However, authorities frequently prosecute for aggravated assault or homicide, which can carry a 40 year sentence.

According to Julián Cruzalta, advisor for Catholics for the Right to Decide in Mexico, governments have allowed the Catholic Church to exert its influence over reproductive freedom at the fear of being excommunicated. This raises deeper concerns surrounding democracy and justice. Ultra-conservative group Catholic Opus Dei have occupied influential cabinet positions in government to advocate against sexual health services, though many decisions are made behind closed doors making the full extent of their influence impossible to evaluate.

In Nicaragua, another region in which abortion is entirely illegal, delegates from Amnesty International said young girls who had been raped by their family members were being forced to give birth despite carrying their own brothers and sisters. A 2006 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll found only 28% of Nicaraguans felt abortion should be illegal, thus reinforcing the beliefs of Vlado Miroseciv Verdugo, Chilean political scientist and politician: “the legislation is always very far behind the public’s desires”.

Following Uruguay, Cuba, and Guyana, Argentina became the fourth country in Latin America to legalise abortion at the beginning of this year. Terminations up to the 14th week of pregnancy were brought into legislation, an historic step hoped to be mirrored in other neighbouring regions. However, the home country of Pope Francis is still heavily Catholic and the Church opposed the bill to legalise abortions. Bishops decided not to attend the traditional pre-Christmas meeting with centre-left President Alberto Fernández who made the legalisation one of his campaign promises.

This prompted worries to arise surrounding the implementation of the practice, as many believe individual doctors will struggle with personally held beliefs and morals. Luz Estrada, coordinator for Mexican Catholics for the Right to Decide, states: “In [the Mexican state of] Veracruz, hospitals have historically failed to obey the law and give access to safe abortion to girls with ages varying from 10 to 14 who had been raped”.

Father Miguel Ángel Moreyra, a priest at the St. Cajetan shrine in Buenos Aires, has attributed the decline in support for the pro-life movement to “the economy and handling of the pandemic”, claiming the disordered state of politics in Latin America is forcing people to think of “their own personal situations”. While many people refuse to give moral legitimacy to abortion, they do not believe those who undergo the procedure should be punished. The Catholic Church has adopted a strict stance on the act for the past 40 years, making room for left-wing movements to enter and influence legislation.

Data from the Pew Research Center gathered in 2014 suggested the Catholic Latin American population had fallen from 92% in 1970 to 69% in 2014. Latinobarometro found this figure to have decreased a further 10% by 2017. At the same time, rival religious factions and more liberal left-wing movements have gained in popularity, attributing to the strides forward in the prominence of reproductive rights. Many put this down to the damaging effect of abuse scandals tarnishing the reputation of the Catholic Church, the most well-known being former priest Fernando Karadima who was accused of the sexual abuse of minors in Chile.

It is thought Latin America, currently home to 40% of the world’s Roman Catholic population, will no longer be majority Catholic by 2030. The religion’s restrictive and traditional view on the reproductive and sexual freedoms of women, often described by many as ‘fundamentalist’, is loosening the religious monopoly it holds on the region. The general suspicion and distrust of abortion and contraceptive practices is slowly dissipating, paving the way for reproductive rights to be recognised as human rights in Latin America.

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Dolly Carter

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October 2021
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