|Abortion Rights are Human Rights:The September 28th Campaign|
Summary: September 2003 web feature summarizing IWHC's colleagues in Latin America's diverse efforts to expand access to safe abortion in Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, and raise awareness around the public health crisis of unsafe abortion across Latin America and the Caribbean (6 pages).
Abortion Rights are Human Rights: The September 28th Campaign
THE RIGHT TO ABORTION IS A PART OF HUMAN RIGHTS. To penalize abortion is a form of discrimination and an act of violence against women…In order to strengthen democracy at a social level, women of every class, race, ethnicity and culture, of all ages, religions and sexual orientation, must be able to control their own bodies and make their own decisions about their lives, and these [decisions] must be respected by the secular State.
–Letter from Guanabara, December 5, 2001, Rio de Janeiro
September 2003 – Across Latin America and the Caribbean, millions of abortions are performed every year, most of them under unsafe, clandestine conditions. And although many Latin American and Caribbean countries permit abortion under a limited set of circumstances, complications from unsafe abortion account for nearly one-third of all maternal deaths in the region.
Even in cases where abortion is legally permitted, it is often inaccessible, especially for poor women, young women, and women living in rural areas. Many health providers are ignorant of the laws concerning abortion, and the care they provide is often influenced by strong personal or religious biases. In addition, punitive laws combined with a lack of clarity on how to establish women’s legal eligibility often force abortions underground.
In an effort to address the grave threat to women’s health posed by unsafe abortion, the Regional Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean (also known as the September 28th Campaign) was formed at the 5th Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Meeting, held in Argentina in 1990. Participants agreed to a series of longterm goals to address the regional crisis of unsafe abortion and chose September 28th as their annual campaign day. The campaign aims to liberalize punitive abortion laws across the region in the interests of public health, respect for human rights, and recognition of women’s citizenship. Aiming to foster broad consensus, the campaign’s advocacy efforts target a combination of lawmakers, health professionals, activists, and the public.
With its secretariat currently located at Flora Tristán in Peru, the Campaign is active in 21 countries. It links over a hundred organizations and seven regional networks, many of them longtime colleagues of IWHC. The philosophy of the campaign is forcefully articulated in its Letter from Guanabara, endorsed by representatives of 27 countries at its regional meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 2001, and signed by 420 additional participants at the IX International Woman’s Health Meeting in Toronto in 2002. To read the letter in English, Spanish, Portuguese, or French, visit the September 28th Campaign’s website.
A co-signatory of the Letter from Guanabara and supporter of the September 28th campaign, IWHC has long supported local efforts to expand access to safe abortion and build consensus on the need for legal reform in Latin America. Various social and political developments in recent years have presented our colleagues with unique opportunities for action, and IWHC is working to provide them with the support they need to effect positive change. A few such efforts are described below.
Uruguay: A Preliminary Victory for Advocates of Reproductive Rights
Abortion has been a criminal offense in Uruguay since 1938. Women who induce their own abortions, as well as individuals who perform abortions with the woman’s consent, face harsh prison terms under the law. Abortion is permitted in order to preserve “family honor,” if the pregnancy is a result of rape, in cases of economic necessity, or if the pregnancy endangers the woman’s life or health. Except in cases where the pregnancy constitutes an extreme health risk, only a judge can determine whether an abortion performed in the first three months of pregnancy meets the requirements described above, or whether the woman or the person performing the abortion is subject to prosecution under the laws. As a result, unsafe abortion is the principal cause of maternal mortality in Uruguay.
Advocates for the reform of Uruguay’s abortion laws have long recognized that restrictive legislation accomplishes little more than converting the issue of abortion into a grave public health crisis. A number of these advocates are linked together by Mujer y Salud en Uruguay (MYSU)—a network of nongovernmental organizations working on sexual and reproductive health and rights. MYSU has long been partnering with the medical community, the women’s movement, and religious groups to lobby for the liberalization of national laws and policies concerning reproductive health and rights.
In December 2002, these groups won a great victory when the lower chamber of Uruguay’s Parliament passed “In Defense of Reproductive Health,” a bill that would legalize abortion in the first trimester, mandate both public and private healthcare institutions to provide abortion services, mandate public hospitals to provide contraceptives, and require the government to develop a national reproductive health program. Drafted by a commission made up of professional organizations, religious groups, and members of the women’s movement, the bill was introduced by a group of pro-choice legislators known as the “Bancada Feminina.” Its passage was supported by sustained lobbying, as well as a series of public hearings and debates organized by MYSU, CNS (the National Commission to Ensure Implementation of the Beijing Agreements), the regional network CLADEM, and a substantial number of volunteers.
IWHC is now supporting MYSU and CNS in a campaign to ensure the bill’s passage in the Senate, where it is anticipated to meet with opposition from conservative lawmakers (including Uruguay’s president), the Catholic Church, and a variety of anti-choice groups. Both MYSU and CNS are well positioned to lead such a campaign. Through ensuring civil society participation in public policy design, their advocacy efforts have helped link public interest to state accountability on a number of issues. They have also played a key role in monitoring the implementation of international agreements related to sexual and reproductive health and rights.
The campaign to ensure passage of “In Defense of Reproductive Health” will draw on a broad coalition of supporters, including the National Workers Syndicate, the National University Association, and the National NGO Association, as well as a variety of religious congregations, youth groups, and artistic and cultural organizations. Through sustained media outreach, public education, and legislative tracking, these groups are seizing the opportunity to deliver a forceful message to Uruguayan lawmakers—a message that will echo across the region.
MYSU's website (Spanish only)
Abortion is legal in Brazil only to save the woman’s life, or in cases of rape. Under the penal code, illegal abortions are punishable by 1-4 years’ imprisonment for the person who performs the abortion, and 1-3 years’ imprisonment for the pregnant woman.
Despite these restrictive laws, abortions in Brazil are widely performed. According to the most recent estimates, between 1 and 4 million women, the majority of them married, obtain abortions every year. And although Brazil’s public health system has expanded its support of legal abortion services in recent years, the vast majority of abortions are still carried out illegally under unsafe conditions. These unsafe abortions are a major cause of maternal mortality in Brazil, resulting in 274,698 hospitalizations in 1995, according to the Single Health System (SUS).
In order to address this situation, groups and networks working to expand access to safe abortion have pursued two interrelated strategies over the years: first, to push for legal reform at the national level, and second, to ensure the quality and accessibility of abortion services as allowed by the current laws. Through their efforts on both fronts, Brazilian advocates for reproductive health and rights have successfully raised awareness and acceptance of abortion as a major public health concern, as well as a crucial element of women’s human rights.
IWHC is currently supporting several different groups and initiatives working to expand access to safe abortion in Brazil:
Commemorating September 28th: Cunhã – Coletivo Feminista
This experience makes Cunhã ideally suited to coordinate Brazil’s national September 28th campaign at a key political moment for legislative reform on abortion in Brazil. Focused on drawing attention to the threat abortion poses to women’s health and human rights, Cunhã’s advocacy will rest on a combination of media outreach, public education and research, and collaboration with health professionals, legal organizations, social organizations, and the women’s movement to expand support for the liberalization of aborvion laws. Among other activities, IWHC supports Cunh#227;’s coordination of a nationwide electronic billboard campaign and national postcard mailing to commemorate September 28th, 2003—the campaign day’s tenth anniversary.
Lobbying Congress: Comissão de Cidadania e Reproduçao (CRR)
The fate of nine bills currently under congressional review—some which would expand access to safe abortion, and some which would limit it—will determine whether the accomplishments of the 1990s will be translated into concrete legal reform, and all this is happening at a particularly dynamic moment in Brazil’s political history. The newly elected President Lula has committed to making maternal mortality and access to safe abortion public health priorities, yet his coalition government contains a number of Catholic and evangelical groups with conservative stances on reproductive rights. Given the presence of these groups, as well as the strength of the anti-choice and evangelical movements in Brazil, now is a particularly vital moment for progressive voices armed with fact-based evidence to push for the passage of legislation that would expand women’s access to safe abortion services rather than limit it.
IWHC is currently supporting the Commission for Citizenship and Reproduction (CCR), a monitoring program working to secure and defend reproductive rights through national networking, media outreach, and public education, to provide such a voice. CCR is housed in the Brazilian Center for Social Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP), an independent research organization working on a range of social issues, and this affiliation allows CCR to conduct its research and advocacy on reproductive rights from a wider base of human rights and social justice issues. Along with ABIA (Brazilian Interdisciplinary Association on AIDS) and the feminist political watchdog group CFEMEA, CCR has set up a taskforce of 14 feminist organizations to lobby for support and approval of the pro-choice bills currently under review by the Brazilian congress’s Commission for Social and Family Security (CSSF).
Hospital Outreach: Católicas pelo Dereito de Decidir (CDD)
Unfortunately, the quality of abortion services leaves much to be desired. Health providers are often poorly informed about the laws, are influenced by conservative religious biases, and are not trained to apply a patients’-rights perspective to the professional practice of abortion. In an attempt to address this situation, the Brazilian chapter of Catholics for a Free Choice (CDD-Brazil) piloted a hospital education project in 2000. As a pro-choice Catholic organization, CDD is uniquely positioned to disseminate alternative religious and ethical positions on reproductive rights in a country where conservative forces within the Catholic Church enjoy tremendous social and political influence.
The hospital education project was designed to raise awareness about the religious and ethical debate surrounding abortion. CDD organized workshops where hospital staff, social workers, nurses, psychologists, and physicians could reflect on their personal attitudes about abortion, as well as the need to balance these attitudes with broader legal, professional, and ethical responsibilities. To extend the workshops’ impact, CDD also developed educational materials and organized open forums with women’s groups and members of the community. Despite meeting with initial resistance, the project ultimately enjoyed a favorable reception from both health service providers and community groups, and with the support of IWHC, CDD is continuing and expanding its efforts.
Catholics for a Free Choice-Brazil (Portuguese only)
Abortion in Argentina is legally permitted to save the life of the woman, to preserve her physical and mental health, or in cases of rape or incest. Physicians who perform illegal abortions risk 3-10 years’ imprisonment and suspension from practicing medicine for a period twice as long as their sentence, and women who induce their own abortions risk 1-4 years’ imprisonment. Yet with one abortion estimated to occur for every two live births, Argentina has one of the highest abortion ratios in the world, and unsafe abortion is the leading cause of maternal deaths.
Argentina is just now emerging from a period of instability following the worst economic crisis in the country’s history, and this climate has significant repercussions for a range of social issues. Following five different interim presidents, in May 2003 former Santa Cruz provincial governor Néstor Kirchner was elected by default with 22 percent of the vote. A member of the Peronist party, Kirchner has already demonstrated a strong commitment to eradicating corruption and promoting human rights, but he faces significant challenges. Twenty-five percent of working-age Argentines are unemployed, and the poverty rate is over 50 percent.
As a result of this economic and political volatility, Argentina has experienced a sharp resurgence in social organizing and activism. It was in this dynamic climate that in October 2002 the National Congress approved a comprehensive sexual and reproductive health bill designed to reduce maternal mortality, promote adolescent sexual health, and increase access to contraception. The bill called for the implementation of a national reproductive health program, to be administered jointly through the Ministries of Health, Education, and National Development, and was an important step on the road to state accountability for women’s reproductive health needs, including safe abortion.
Despite the wide base of support for the program from both health professionals and activists, the Catholic Church and anti-choice groups took issue with its discussion of sexuality education and contraception. In February 2003 these groups succeeded in blocking the bill’s approval through a petition of amparo (a speedy recourse wherein citizens can block legislation through lower-level courts) approved by a judge in the southern city of Córdoba. A member of the fundamentalist Catholic sect Opus Dei, this same judge had previously attempted to prohibit the production and distribution of all contraceptives in Argentina by approving an earlier petition of amparo—a decision that was unanimously blocked by the national congress.
The decision to block the comprehensive sexual and reproductive health bill is currently under judicial review, and the bill’s fate has become a point of mobilization for groups on both sides of Argentina’s reproductive rights debate. IWHC is currently supporting the efforts of the Córdoba chapter of Catholics for a Free Choice (CDD) to rally support for the bill through sustained public outreach and a comprehensive media education campaign. In a country where conservative elements within Catholic Church enjoy tremendous social influence, CDD is uniquely positioned to offer an alternative religious perspective on reproductive rights—one that focuses on women’s moral authority and ethical capacity.
IWHC is also supporting the Rosario, Argentina chapter of the Comité de América Latina y el Caribe para la Defensa de los Derechos de la Mujer (CLADEM) and the Instituto de Genero, Derecho, y Desarrollo (Isgenar) in a joint initiative to investigate inhumane treatment of women seeking reproductive health services at hospitals in Rosario, Argentina. In particular, the investigation will document cases where women seeking emergency post-abortion care have been treated with extreme cruelty, with the eventual goal of initiating a legislative case against those responsible and presenting a shadow report to the United Nations’ Torture Commission in Geneva.
Catholics for a Free Choice in Latin America (Spanish only)
CLADEM's website (Spanish only)
More about IWHC’s work on access to safe abortion>> (IWHC publication, available in English, French, and Spanish)
More about IWHC’s work on access to safe abortion>> (published by the World Health Organization)