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Anti-Abortion Extremists: Look First At Latin America's Dark, Dangerous Path

Salvador Melendez
REPRODUCTIVE POLICE STATE: Women in San Salvador, El Salvador, call for the release of three women sentenced to 30 years in prison for having abortions. They were released in March after serving 10 years.


As a U.S. correspondent who covers Latin America and the Caribbean from South Florida, I chafe watching my country acquire traits of the developing nations I write about. Obscene wealth disparities. Zero-sum tribal politics. Mass incarceration.

And now, extremist attacks on abortion rights.

How else can I describe the headlong race among many U.S. states to join the radical ranks of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Suriname?

No other region in the world counts as many countries that criminalize abortion outright, under any circumstance – even in cases of rape, incest and when pregnancy or childbirth endangers a mother’s life – as Latin America does. And for all intents and purposes, that’s the direction – away from reasonable abortion restrictions and straight at benighted absolutism – that states from the Midwest to the Deep South look determined to take the U.S.

READ MORE: Does Escaping El Salvador’s Abortion Law Nightmare Mean Flying to Miami?

America’s anti-abortion rights movement has never looked stronger. Legislatures in half a dozen states recently passed or enacted “heartbeat” bills that ban abortion once a fetus has a pulse – meaning, sooner than most women even realize they’re pregnant. This week Alabama passed a bill that prohibits the procedure at any time except when the mother’s health is at serious risk. Florida this year almost further tightened its restrictive abortion laws.

The aim of this crusade, of course, is to steer the inevitable legal challenges up to the Supreme Court, where the religious right believes it has enough sympathetic justices now to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 high court decision that legalized abortion rights in the U.S.

Anti-abortion rights extremists should look at Latin America and ask: do we really want the tragic consequences – and the medieval image – of the Third World countries we seem hellbent on imitating?

But in the meantime, I’d suggest the movement’s militants stop looking at SCOTUS for a moment and glance south of the border. Then ask yourselves: do you really want the tragic consequences – and the medieval image – of the Third World countries you seem hellbent on imitating?

For more than 20 years the small Central American republic of El Salvador has enforced what are arguably the world’s most draconian anti-abortion laws. The result is a dark, Orwellian dystopia that makes “The Handmaid’s Tale” feel like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

El Salvador is basically a reproductive Inquisition. Women convicted of having abortions have been sentenced to as many as 30 years in prison. In that witch-hunt hothouse, any doctor, nurse or neighbor wanting to score points with the pregnancy police can accuse a woman who’s had a legitimate miscarriage of inducing an abortion. The country today is an international human rights pariah.

Yet, for all the hysterical vigilance, El Salvador’s abortion rate has not gone down. In fact, figures from the nonprofit Guttmacher Instituteshow Latin America and the Caribbean – the region with the world’s most severe abortion statutes – have the world’s highest abortion rate. It also has one of the world’s highest rates of unsafe abortions – meaning it also has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates.


Many insist none of this could ever happen in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi, Louisiana or any other U.S. state eager to outlaw all abortions. (Their laws, they note, only penalize abortion providers.) But then, few thought such fierce persecution of women would happen in El Salvador.

In fact, I’d remind those abortion-outlawing U.S. states that they already show some of the statistical character of those abortion-outlawing Latin American countries.

Credit Mickey Welsh / The Montgomery Advertiser via AP
The Montgomery Advertiser via AP
Abortion rights advocates dressed as handmaids protest the Alabama state legislature's bill, passed this week, outlawing abortion.

Consider infant mortality. Here's the high hypocrisy of nations like Haiti and the Dominican Republic: they expend tremendous energy and resources forbidding all abortions, yet they have some of the world’s highest infant death rates. They’re just not quite as committed to that part of the pro-life effort.

Nor, it seems, are Alabama and its kindred commonwealths. Alabama’s infant mortality rate was the nation’s highest in 2016 (9.1 deaths per 1,000 births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). It has since fallen, but the state still sits in the U.S.’s bottom five – while Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio and Louisiana occupy the bottom 10, according to CDC estimates.

A lot of conservatives argue that if liberals can advocate banning all guns, they shouldn't be condemned for backing a blanket ban on their pet evil, abortion. But most gun-control advocates don’t back a blanket ban on guns. Likewise, most abortion-rights advocates don’t support legalizing all abortions all the time. Nor do I.

But many of us have looked south of the border – and we’ve seen the awful results of criminalizing all abortions all the time.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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