Only six countries in the world prohibit abortion under all circumstances. Alongside Malta and the Vatican City are four Latin American countries: Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua. With the recent outbreak of the Zika disease, which the World Health Organization has declared a public health emergency, the issue has assumed even greater salience.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has confirmed the link between Zika and microcephaly, resulting in severe birth defects. In some countries, mothers are being told to avoid pregnancy altogether until more is known about the disease. But what do you do if you’re already pregnant? Or, well… can’t help it?
Despite being one of the most restrictive regions regarding a woman’s right to choose, Latin America has the highest abortion rate in the world, with 44 women per 1,000 between the ages of 15 and 44 terminating their pregnancy; the world average is 35 per 1,000 women.
Latinobarómetro, a regional survey of public opinion, has periodically measured citizens’ support for abortion using a scale from 1 to 10, in which 1 is not justifiable and 10 is very justifiable. The average for the countries in the region we reviewed was 2.88 (again, out of 10) in 2015—surprisingly low for the region with highest abortion rates in the world.
However, when we compared the Latinobarómetro results from 2007 to 2015, we noted that the rates of acceptance of abortion have actually increased, albeit modestly in every country. The two countries with the highest increases were the two with some of the most restrictive policies: Guatemala, which went from 1.30 in 2007 to 3.12 in 2015, and Chile which went from 2.09 to 4.36 in the same time span.
The region’s willingness to justify abortion is higher when the mother’s health is at risk. According to data provided by LAPOP, which also conducts surveys on public opinion throughout the region, 57 percent of citizens in the countries listed above support a woman’s right to choose in the case of complications, such as if the mother’s health is at risk. Indeed, according to data from Pew Research Center in most of these cases countries do permit terminating a pregnancy when the woman’s life is at risk, which is in accordance with public opinion. The exceptions are those mentioned above: El Salvador, Nicaragua and Chile.
But in many countries there is no real correlation between laws and public opinion. For instance, in spite of having one of the highest regional levels of tolerance for terminating a pregnancy (4.36) and 66 percent approval of the procedure when the mother’s life is at risk, Chile is still one of the six countries in the world that does not allow abortion under any circumstances. Being one of the most developed countries in the region, you would expect it to have more liberal policies regarding abortion. Is the strong presence of the Catholic church, in Chile—stronger than in many other countries—the reason? Or is it an out-of-touch elite that doesn’t care about public opinion?
In contrast, Colombia and Mexico show the opposite. Both have low rates of approval for abortion but have some of the most liberal abortion policies in the region, with Mexico one of the three countries (along with Cuba and Guyana—not shown in our chart) where abortion is broadly legal. Does this mean that policymakers in Mexico are more liberal than the majority of their citizens? Or are they–in an inverse way to their counterparts in Chile–out of touch?
One factor that could affect these approval ratings would be the access to contraception; without it many women may have little choice but to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. However, data provided by UNICEF reveals that the region has the second highest rate of contraceptive prevalence in the world, at 72 percent.
The major question today is whether the current outbreak of Zika across the region will affect public attitudes toward abortion. According to recent reports, abortion requests are already increasing in the region.
For now, though, policy seems to be going in a different—almost illogical direction. At least five countries have recommended their citizens to avoid pregnancies altogether until the Zika outbreak is under control, including El Salvador, one of the four countries where abortion is banned for any reason. But is that really an option? It certainly isn’t one after impregnation. And then what?
In the end, one possible silver lining to the Zika outbreak may be a greater, more open discussion of restrictive policies on a woman’s right to choose and their implications—and ultimately, maybe, a broader push for their liberalization.