Reproductive Rights in Latin America

Emily Hwang - Ecuador

November 27, 2012

Read the original publication in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by clicking here.


Just last month, Uruguay became the third Latin American nation subsequent to Cuba and Guyana to legalize all first-trimester abortions. Although a newsworthy move, the new legislation, which was passed with a 17-14 majority, is not as transparent as it seems. Prior to proceeding, a woman must first justify her decision before a panel of at least three healthcare professionals to discuss health risks and alternative approaches (i.e. adoption), and then reflect for a period of five days (The New York Times). This conservative approach to a progressive step perhaps testifies to the Roman Catholic Church’s influence on politics in Latin America, where abortion is completely banned in five countries, even in cases of rape. And yet, Latin America has the highest percentage of abortions in the world, and 95 percent of them are unsafe and can lead to serious health complications or even death.

Even so, for many, a dangerous clandestine abortion is the preferred option over a bleak future illustrated by societal ostracism, early school dropout, and a resulting cycle of underdevelopment and poverty. This image is unfortunately an endemic one, particularly among teenaged girls residing in poverty. These young women have little or no access to proper healthcare, let alone sex education or culturally stigmatized contraceptives.

Here in the mountainous province of Chimborazo in Central Ecuador, where I am currently spending a bridge year before college, I have had the opportunity to observe this cycle first-hand. Defined by lingeringmachista values, zealous Catholicism, a vibrant indigenous culture, and a budding sentiment of societal advancement and commercialism, Chimborazo is a startling blend of the old and the new. This trend of polarity is paralleled in the community’s attitude toward sex too. Despite the recent launch of a comprehensive sex education campaign by the Ecuadorian government, the nation’s private, parochial schools continue to shy away from instructing students beyond the identification of body parts.

Another interesting disparity is the rapid infiltration of Western mass media into local culture (particularly its liberal approach to sex as seen in Hollywood movies), alongside the comparatively slow shift in cultural awareness and openness to discourse around the very theme of sexuality. The result is a generation of young people that has progressive intuitions but lacks the knowledge to protect themselves from disease and pregnancy.

According to data from The World Bank, 19 percent of Ecuadorian women aged 15 to 19 years old were pregnant or already had children in 2004. Rosa Elena Lara, a regional expert, recently reported that approximately two teenagers are impregnated every day in Chimborazo alone. One such teenager is Adolfa Vinicio. As a student completing her final year at a private, Catholic school in Riobamba, the capital city of the Chimborazo region, she became pregnant after having unprotected sex with her boyfriend and was quickly expelled as a result. She was sixteen years old. Today, Adolfa is a nineteen-year-old single mother of a two-year-old boy. She works at a local grocery store by day and goes to school at night in the commendable pursuit of a high school diploma equivalent.

Adolfa imagined a different future for herself, and so do millions of others in similar positions. But the reality is that she is living in a nation where sex education is underdeveloped, the use of contraceptives is culturally taboo, and having an abortion can result in 1-5 years of jail time. So, although Ecuador has definitely made significant strides in social reform (per a new constitution in 2008 under leftist president Rafael Correa), it is still difficult to imagine an alternative fate for girls like Adolfa.

I will mention, solely for the sake of contemplation, that I tend to identify with the beliefs that are labeled in the United States as conservative. I wrote this piece as a means of documenting my own shift in perspective from that of viewing sexual and reproductive rights exclusively as a moralistic issue, as is so often the case, to viewing them as a global health and development imperative and call to action. I share these ideas with the conviction that through observation, dialogue, and the kind of heuristic learning I’ve engaged in abroad, an even-tempered attitude toward reproductive rights is attainable.

Emily Hwang