Abortion Rights in South America

In 2022, the landmark decision in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade, sparked a global dialogue on abortion rights and the recognition of abortion as a fundamental human right. The 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade was hailed as a significant triumph for second-wave feminism, establishing abortion rights at the federal level in the United States. However, the Dobbs decision marked a significant setback, undermining the US’s longstanding position as a key advocate for abortion rights.

While much attention has been focused on the erosion of abortion rights in the United States, South America has emerged as a new focal point for advancements in abortion rights within the Americas. This prompts the question: how did South America, a continent often characterized by its strong religious influence and home to a substantial portion of the global Catholic population, become a driving force for abortion rights victories? Furthermore, how does this predominantly religious continent perceive abortion within the framework of human rights?

In recent years, the majority of South American nations have moved to rescind their total abortion bans. As depicted in the map, except for Suriname, every country on the continent now provides access to abortion to some degree, whether for reasons of preserving life, safeguarding health, or upon request, albeit subject to varying gestational limits. The emergence of the “Green Wave” abortion rights movement in Latin America has been instrumental in mobilizing support against total abortion bans. Despite legal advancements, deeply ingrained religious taboos and stigma continue to shape perceptions of abortion primarily as a measure to save lives.

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According to the United Nations, members must decriminalize abortion to safeguard women’s right to health and other fundamental human rights. The UN asserts that a blanket denial of abortion “can constitute violations of the rights of health, privacy, and, in certain cases, the right to be free from cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.” Echoing this sentiment, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) advocates for legalizing abortions in cases where the mother’s life is at risk or the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. Despite this alignment between the UN and IACHR regarding abortion access, ambiguity and lack of clarity surround the explicit legality of abortion at both regional and international levels. Notably, abortion is not explicitly recognized or codified as a right in any regional or global treaty. Without explicit codification, ongoing debate will persist regarding the status of abortion as a human right.

The uncertainty surrounding abortion as a human right is undeniably influenced by cultural and religious stigmatization. South America, deeply entrenched in Catholicism, upholds the belief that life begins at conception, categorizing abortion in all circumstances as a moral transgression. However, religious dynamics in the region have evolved notably over the past five decades. While Catholicism has experienced a significant decline in followers since the 1970s, Protestantism has witnessed a surge in adherents. Interestingly, a higher proportion of Protestants now oppose abortion compared to Catholics. Despite the Church’s enduring influence as a cultural institution, abortion remains largely devoid of classification as a socioeconomic or cultural right in South America.

IACHR perceives abortion as a fundamental public health necessity aimed at safeguarding life and preventing inhumane treatment, yet it refrains from categorizing abortion within the broader spectrum of socio-economic and cultural rights. While the IACHR does not explicitly designate abortion as a human right, its Secretary General, Luis Almagro, holds a contrasting perspective. In a 2015 address on gender equality and women’s empowerment, Almagro advocated for bolstering the legal framework surrounding women’s rights and gender equality within the Organization of American States (OAS) through the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM). He highlighted the staggering toll of “thousands and thousands” of women’s deaths resulting from illegal abortions annually across the Americas, characterizing it as a form of “genocide” demanding urgent attention. Although Almagro refrained from framing abortion explicitly as a socio-economic and cultural right, he acknowledged the dire implications of gender-based violence and the disproportionate impact on women when abortion remains criminalized. It is noteworthy that nearly all abortion-related deaths occur in countries where stringent legal restrictions on abortion persist.

It falls within the purview of regional and international human rights organizations to safeguard women’s fundamental right to life, which encompasses access to abortion. Religion holds significant sway as a cultural institution in South America, contributing to prevalent religious and moral opposition to abortion rights. Despite religion’s influence on abortion legislation and societal stigmatization, abortion is not universally recognized as a socio-economic and cultural right on the continent. Nevertheless, there is a growing movement among the younger generation in the Americas advocating for abortion as an inherent human right. Consequently, the United States can draw inspiration from South America’s evolving stance on abortion rights.

About the authors:

Molly Reidmiller is a senior Political Science student at Drew University. Molly recently defended her honors thesis, “Defending Dignity: An Exploration of the Menstrual Equity Movement in Prisons”. Following graduation, she will be headed to the University of Missouri to earn her PhD in Political Science. In graduate school, she seeks to continue research on issues of gender policy and politics, oppressive institutions, human rights, civic culture, and social movements. 

Sophia Dinnocenzo is a junior, majoring in Political Science at Drew University.

Editor's note: This entry was written for Drew University's PSCI 333 International Human Rights course.