BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ecuador must not throw away the chance to ease its stringent laws on abortion for rape victims, which put women’s health and lives at risk, Human Rights Watch said ahead of a debate by lawmakers on overhauling the criminal code.
At present, abortion is allowed only if a woman who has been raped is deemed to be ‘an idiot or demented,’ or if the health or life of a pregnant woman is at risk, regardless of how she became pregnant.
In all other cases where rape results in pregnancy, it is a crime for women to undergo an abortion and for doctors to perform the procedure – even though a 2011 government survey showed that one in four women has experienced some type of sexual violence.
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) found such stringent abortion laws endanger the lives of women and contribute to the Andean nation’s high maternal mortality rate, as women are more likely to undergo unsafe and dangerous backstreet abortions.
“Ecuador’s abortion law drives women who are rape victims to take desperate measures. Doctors by law have to deny an abortion to a woman who has been raped and who is not considered an idiot or demented. The language is from the 1930s,” Amanda Klasing, Americas women’s rights researcher at HRW, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview in Washington.
“A woman or girl who has suffered the trauma of rape shouldn’t have to face the prospect of going to jail if she chooses to get an abortion. They shouldn’t be in a position where they are seen as criminals by the state,” she added.
Experts say many Ecuadorean lawmakers are likely to oppose any easing of the restrictions on abortion as part of proposed reforms to the criminal code on which the national assembly is expected to vote in the next few weeks.
Ecuador’s left-leaning president, Rafael Correa, opposes decriminalising abortion, largely because he is a Roman Catholic, local women’s rights groups say. Most Catholics believe that abortion infringes on the rights of an unborn child and that life must be protected by law, unconditionally, from the moment of conception.
“Correa has been clear on his position on abortion and has said he will veto any changes (that would involve) the easing of abortion laws. His party has a big majority in the national assembly. It looks like the language - the provision of abortion for rape survivors only (if they are) idiot or demented women - will stay exactly the same,” Klasing said.
“Ecuador’s lawmakers should seize the opportunity of criminal code reform to remove the dangerous restrictions on abortion, in particular after sexual violence,” she said.
Complications from abortions are the leading cause of hospital admissions for women in Ecuador, HRW’s report noted. Hospitals treated more than 23,000 women for complications arising from abortions in 2011, government figures show.
One doctor working at a maternity hospital in the capital, Quito, told the rights group how a 24-year-old woman, who arrived at the hospital with a uterine perforation and internal bleeding from an unsafe abortion, died in his arms.
Abortion is severely restricted in most countries in Latin America. Seven countries in the region ban abortion unconditionally, with no explicit exception to save a woman’s life.
Despite the tough laws, abortion rates in the region remain high.
According to a 2008 study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Guttmacher Institute, Latin America has one of the world’s highest abortion rates - 31 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age, compared with 12 per 1,000 in western Europe, where most countries permit abortion on a range of grounds.
The WHO says botched abortions are a leading cause of maternal death in all parts of the world, and account for 12 percent of maternal deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean, based on 2008 figures.
“We have consistently found that legal frameworks that do not exempt from punishment abortions performed when a woman’s life or health is endangered or in the case of rape create an environment where women turn to unsafe and clandestine procedures that threaten their health and lives,’ HRW said in its report.