Feminicide and Clandestine Abortions in the EU and Latin America

Denying women their sexual and reproductive rights, leads directly to preventable maternal mortality and feminicide suicide.

The right to abortion has been and continues to be one of the most hard-fought for and controversial demands of women’s movements. The struggle for abortion rights is a matter of social justice, where a woman’s right to choose about her body and life is the main victim. 

According to the UN, Latin America is currently the area of the world with the highest percentage of unplanned pregnancies (56%), with hundreds of thousands of clandestine abortions taking place every year in the region. Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Haiti, El Salvador, along with Chile - where legislative changes are ongoing - are countries where abortions are severely punished and where women’s and girl’s human rights are being continually violated. In Europe, Andorra, Malta and the Vatican are the only countries where abortion is prohibited in all cases.

In Spain, the Law of sexual and reproductive health recognizes women’s rights to abortion. However, the desire for dignified abortions in the sense of a process involving respectful treatment, accurate medical information, non-discriminatory attitudes and the granting of the freedom to choose is often met with prejudice, gender stereotyping and an institutionalized conscientious objection in the public health services. In many cases public medical professionals have not provided women with sufficient information about the state of their pregnancy or of the foetus for them to take a free, conscious decision. 

On the other hand, conscientious objection, which must be an individual and not an institutional matter, is being wrongly interpreted. 

There are Spanish regions where no abortions are carried out by public services (Aragón, Castilla Léon, Castilla La Mancha and Murcia); instead, they are all channelled to private clinics. The lack of medical professionals in public health services who are not objectors has obliged many women to use private clinics, often located at other ends of the country with all the extra cost, family inconvenience and travel expense involved. 

In Northern Ireland, the 1967 Abortion Law which legalized abortion in Britain was never enforced. Abortion is therefore prohibited except in extreme cases where the mother’s life is in peril. Scotland, Wales and England, on the other hand, have pro-abortion regulations. Recently, the British Minister for Equalities announced that women from Northern Ireland could have free abortions provided by the National Health Service (NHS). However, the First Minister of Northern Ireland recently declared that her administration will do “everything in its power” to resist calls from the UK government to alter the province’s abortion laws. The Belfast court of appeal subsequently ruled that Northern Ireland´s restrictive legislation did not infringe human rights.

In Ireland, the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act,  which came into force in 2014, is one of the most restrictive in the world, allowing the termination of pregnancy only if there is a real and substantive risk to the life of the mother, including the risk of suicide. All other cases such as pregnancies resulting from rape, incest or foetal abnormalities that do not risk the life of the mother are prohibited. 

In a recent decision the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has again condemned Ireland for legislation that protects the right to life of the unborn.  This is the second time in the last year that the organization has pressured the country to legalize abortion. In June 2016, the UNHRC criticized Ireland’s abortion law in the case of Amanda Mellet, a young woman who suffered “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” after being denied an abortion, despite the fact that she had been diagnosed with fatal foetal impairment. She was forced to travel to Britain to have the pregnancy terminated. 

In addition, a Citizens Assembly set up by the Irish Parliament to study the abortion laws in Ireland, recommended, among other things, “the elimination of the eighth amendment to the Constitution which gives the foetus the same right to life as the woman,” according to the Irish Constitution. This amendment, according to the Constitution, can only be repealed by means of a referendum. 

In El Salvador, many young girls and young women living in conditions of poverty find themselves trapped between sexual violence, rape-induced pregnancies and the criminalization of abortion in all circumstances. 

The legal system continues to unjustly condemn women with obstetric complications to sentences of 30 years in prison. These are young women who have been initially accused of abortion. 

Despite the recognition by the Ministry of Health that the absolute criminalization of abortion is a grave public health problem,  eight years have passed without any other statements by government bodies in favour of changing the abortion law. Meanwhile, in the Legislative Assembly political parties continue casting their votes to reform the abortion legislation in the Penal Code with electoral calculations in mind. 

In Mexico, ten years have passed since the City of Mexico decriminalized abortion for pregnancies less than twelve weeks. In the rest of the country abortion continues to be a crime, with some exceptions depending on particular federative entities, but abortion after rape is decriminalized in all of them. With Mexico City’s new constitution women’s right to choose is safeguarded, and in Veracruz, in the Gulf of Mexico, the local congress is currently debating the amendment of the Penal Code to decriminalize abortion for up to 12 week gestations. 

In Nicaragua, all types of abortion have been criminalized since 2006. This has caused an increase in the suicide rate among young women, and many women are forced to have unsafe abortions. For a decade an answer has been expected from the Supreme Court of Justice on an appeal of unconstitutionality for the elimination from the Penal Code of therapeutic abortion. The National Assembly shelved the draft Termination of Pregnancy Law for reasons of health, which was proposed by a group of citizens who complied with all the established legal formalities. However, they did manage to popularize their slogan Las Queremos Vivas (We Want Them Alive).

In Peru, therapeutic abortion has been decriminalized [2]. In a country that leads the region’s statistics for sexual violence, where in 2016 around 60% of adolescent pregnancies (12 to 16 years of age) were a consequence of rape, the situation is of great concern. The lack of guarantees for the exercise of women’s reproductive rights is a form of direct discrimination with possibly fatal consequences, and campaigning for such rights must be part of the ongoing struggle to combat gender-based violence. 

After the 2016 general elections and with a new Congress in place, feminist organizations [3] presented a new proposal of law that called for the decriminalisation of abortion for rape [4]. In contrast to their previous legal submission, this time they added foetal “malformations incompatible with life” as a cause, requiring the State to guarantee a woman’s right to choose and to provide the appropriate support. The debate about the proposed legislation is pending but it will be met with serious opposition given that the conservative majority in Congress will be reluctant to engage with gender politics.

In Brazil, the Supreme Federal Court displayed a more democratic understanding of human rights and social justice in November 2016, when it issued a judgement in a case against the criminalization of abortion during the first three months of pregnancy. In February 2017, an opinion poll revealed that 64% of the population disagreed totally or partially with the imprisonment of women for abortion. 

Religious political groups in the National Congress have presented their own proposals for changes in the law which threaten the reproductive rights of women. Women’s and feminist movements have rallied against the passing of such legislation and their campaign, a product of the alliance between women, trade unions and some sectors of political parties, will culminate in the street protests of 28 September. 

In Argentina since 1921 the Criminal Code (art. 86) establishes exceptions to the criminalization of abortion: “a) in the case of danger to the life of a woman; b) in the case of danger to the health of a woman; c) in the case of rape; d) in the case of sexual assault on a feeble-minded or demented woman.” In 2015 the Ministry of Health issued a “Protocol for the comprehensive care of persons entitled to legal termination of pregnancy”, updating the 2007 and 2010 protocols, with medical, bioethics and legal information for health professionals. However, this document lacks the status of a ministerial resolution and has been widely rejected by public hospitals and health professionals. 

According to official statistics, between 460,000 and 600,000 clandestine abortions are carried out every year, while in public hospitals 53,000 abortions were performed. In 2015, around 55 women died as a result of unsafe abortions while 298 women lost their lives due to other indirect causes such as infections, hypertension and/or haemorrhages during pregnancy or birth [5].  

In Colombia, the struggle for the decriminalization of abortion has had a direct effect on public health, as well as on the institutional strategies that, with an ethical and secularist constitution, should guarantee access to health services for sexual and reproductive matters.  Around 400,000 clandestine abortions [6] are carried out in Colombia each year. As a consequence of the techniques used in these abortions, complications arise that are then not treated properly in hospitals and clinics. Furthermore, it is clear that there is a dearth of statistical data and when the plight of poor and rural women is ignored to such an extent we have to ask ourselves what we are offering these young people as a society. What sort of life plans or expectations do we have for them? What academic and work goals, if any?

In Chile, in August 2017, the Parliament passed a draft bill that proposes providing legal abortion in cases of risk to the life of the mother, non-viable foetuses and pregnancies resulting from rape, within the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy. The women’s movement has reported that 70% of the Chilean population support decriminalization for these three situations. In spite of the progress represented by the draft bill, especially in the case of sexual violence, the conservative coalition proposed an amendment that stopped the passage of the bill. However, as I write these lines, the Constitutional Court has just given the green light to the Chilean abortion law. Despite celebrating the new legislation as a “social gain” in recovering rights that were snatched away from them three decades ago, women’s organizations argue that there will still be women condemned to back street abortions and that the battle for the right to choose in Chile still has a long way to go.

In Bolivia, where in 2016 115 illegal abortions were carried out every day, the existing Penal Code establishes that abortions are only permitted in cases of rape, abduction not followed by marriage, incest, or danger to the life or health of the mother when all other medical possibilities have been exhausted. 

Last March, the government presented a proposal for modifications to the existing legal framework, where it considered other reasons for the voluntary termination of pregnancy, such as women in extreme poverty, students and mothers of three or more children lacking sufficient resources for their upkeep, provided the request for abortion is presented within the first eight weeks of the pregnancy. However, in cases where any of the above reasons do not apply, the punishment for illegal abortions is established at between one and three years in prison. 

In spite of the significant progress represented by the draft bill, presented by the most progressive elements within the governing party and with the approval of OACNUDH, there has been much criticism, especially from the Catholic Church and other religious creeds, which have totally rejected it.

In Uruguay, there is a law with time limits that permits abortion within the first 12 weeks in all cases; up to 14 weeks in cases of rape and without time limits for non-viable foetuses or when a woman’s life or health would be in danger. The Uruguay law also proposes what is called “informed consent”, a procedure whereby a woman has to consult with a team of professionals and, after a five-day period for reflection, she can make a decision. 

The country has seen a large decrease in maternal mortality in recent years. In Uruguay, 14 women die for every 100,000 births, which is the second lowest maternal death rate of any country in the region. However, there are still cases of clandestine or unsafe abortions,  especially among women is situations of social exclusion and those who live in rural areas. Apart from a lack of information available, studies point to conscientious objection as the reason some women find it difficult to access services for the voluntary termination of pregnancy as permitted by the law. Thus, the National Gender Observatory for Sexual and Reproductive Health of the MYSU has calculated that in some departments of the country over 60% are conscientious objectors.


[1] Lagarde, Marcela (2013): El feminismo en mi vida.

[2] Voluntary termination of pregnancy when it is the only means to save the life of a pregnant woman or avoid a grave or permanent danger to her life; legal since 1924.

[3] Centro de la Mujer Peruana Flora Tristán, Movimiento Manuela Ramos, Promsex, Demus, Católicas por el derecho a decidir and Cladem.

[4] Law that decriminalizes abortion in cases of pregnancies resulting from rape, artificial insemination or ovarian transplantation without consent and non-viable foetuses. 

[5] FEIM (Foundation for Study and Research about Women)

[6] Prada E. et al. (2011): Unintended pregnancy and induced abortion in Colombia - causes and consequences. New York: Guttmacher Institute.