Ipas and partners stress harms of criminal abortion laws in Latin America

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Publication: Betraying women

The Inter-American Dialogue, a leading U.S. and foreign policy think tank, this week brought together Ipas and partners to raise awareness of a persistent human rights concern: Across Latin America, laws that make abortion a crime are violating women’s basic human rights. According to new research, laws in the region increasingly require or encourage health providers to report women to the police if suspected of having an abortion.

“Latin America continues to have the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, which violate the human rights of women and health providers who are arrested, prosecuted and jailed for alleged abortion-related crimes,” says Ipas Senior Policy Advisor Bia Galli, who spoke at The Dialogue’s event. Joining Galli were representatives from the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission of Women, and Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.

Five countries in Latin America—Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and the Dominican Republic—ban abortion under all circumstances, even to save a woman’s life. Where laws are less restrictive, women still face significant legal obstacles to accessing safe abortion services.

“Laws criminalizing abortion in the region have a devastating impact on Latin American women’s health and lead to violations of their human rights, particularly their right to physical, mental and social health,” says O’Neill Institute Executive Director Oscar Cabrera, who also spoke at the event.

Women who seek life-saving health care risk arrest

A new Ipas report, “Betraying women: Provider duty to report,” reveals an alarming trend of medical staff breaching patient confidentiality and reporting women and girls to the police when they seek urgent health care for complications following an unsafe or self-induced abortion. This in turn creates fear and forces women to choose between seeking care (which may lead to imprisonment) or avoiding care and risking permanent injury or death.

“By turning hospitals and clinics into entry points to the criminal justice system, these laws are creating a hostile environment for women’s sexual and reproductive health and causing violations of women’s basic human rights to life, health, patient privacy and freedom from torture,” Galli explains.

In some countries, providers are now legally required to report a patient suspected of having an abortion to the police; in other countries, providers can be required to share confidential information during criminal investigations or legal proceedings. And in many cases across the region, health-care providers mistakenly believe abortion is illegal and report women for fear of being punished if they do not.

“Requiring health providers to report suspected illegal abortions results in breaches of the providers’ duty to protect doctor-patient confidentiality and undermines trust in the health system,” Cabrera says. The new report is based on research the O’Neill Institute compiled in partnership with Ipas.

The report calls on international bodies, governments and health-care providers to reverse course and instead create patient-centered health-care systems that protect patient confidentiality and uphold standard medical ethics related to patient privacy.

Learn more

Betraying women: Provider duty to report

Protecting women’s access to safe abortion care: A guide to understanding the human rights to privacy and confidentiality