Prospects for Reproductive Rights Dim with End of “Left-Turn”

By Merike Blofield and Christina Ewig*

A large group of women and men gather in front of statue in a plaza.

A demonstration against abortion in Córdoba, Argentina, shortly after President Mauricio Macri’s election. / Marco Camejo / Flickr / Creative Commons

The end of Latin America’s “pink tide” suggests the region will make little progress in protecting reproductive rights in coming years and may even face some policy reversals.  With five Latin American governments slated to elect new leaders in 2018, and with recent elections of right-leaning governments in Chile and Argentina, Latin America may well be concluding the left-turn that has characterized the region’s politics since the early 2000s.

  • The past two decades of pink tide governments coincided with a flurry of legislative activity on abortion policy – in sharp contrast to previous decades of policy stasis, when high rates of clandestine abortions coexisted with restrictive laws. Since the turn of the millennium, abortion laws have been revised by Latin American legislatures and courts on 11 separate occasions in eight different countries.  Even in countries where legal reforms did not go through, legislatures debated bills at a prevalence not seen before.
  • Several left governments have carried through liberalization in response to public opinion and social mobilization. Last August, for example, the Chilean Supreme Court upheld its Congress’ liberalization of abortion law – to allow for abortion under three circumstances (threat to life; fatal fetal defect; rape) – overturning the absolute prohibition that had been in effect since the last days of the Pinochet military regime in 1989.  Some left governments went even further:  Uruguay legalized abortion in 2012, and Mexico City did so even earlier, in 2007.

Yet left governments have not been unequivocally liberal; some have actively upheld or enacted conservative laws, even absolute prohibitions.  In 2006, the Sandinista Party in Nicaragua reversed course from allowing therapeutic abortion to supporting absolute prohibition, while Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa in 2013 rejected a provision allowing abortion in the case of rape.  The FMLN in El Salvador has doggedly, even brutally, enforced a total prohibition, to the detriment of many (primarily poor) women’s lives.  In a recent study (published in Social Politics), we show this split in policy roughly follows the “institutionalized” vs. “populist” typology of lefts.

  • Institutionalized parties – like those in Chile and Uruguay – have channels in place for civil society organizations, including feminist ones, to have bottom-up influence. Given their respect for the rules of the game, however, the institutionalized lefts are also likely to face well-organized conservative opposition, which slow down reform, shape final legislation, or even veto it altogether.  In Uruguay and Chile, feminists had a voice, but conservatives were also are able to block, slow down, and water down liberalization.  This is why the Uruguayan reform took so long and why in both cases the final legislation is less liberal than the original proposals.
  • By contrast, populist governments, like those of Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega and Ecuador under Rafael Correa, often see advocates for liberalization as political threats – particularly feminists who also represent more general claims for individual autonomy and pluralism. Moreover, an issue like abortion, where the practical costs of a restrictive stance are born almost exclusively by low-income women, is likely to be used by populist leaders as a pawn in a power struggle with well-organized, influential religious forces.

Although we systematically analyzed only abortion politics, we found that sex education, contraceptive access, and other reproductive health policies more broadly have followed similar dynamics in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Chile, and Uruguay.  For example, the Uruguayan left government expanded sex education after assuming power in 2006, while in Ecuador, leaders appointed in health bureaucracies sought to reduce access to publically provided reproductive health services.  Nicaragua, on the other hand, has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies outside sub-Saharan Africa.

As Latin America’s left shift appears to be coming to a close, reproductive health policies promise to remain contentions – and abortion continues to be a public health crisis across most of Latin America even with the limited liberalizations of the past decade.  The Alan Guttmacher Institute recently estimated that 6.5 million abortions are annually performed in the region.  The vast majority are still done in clandestinity, resulting in high maternal mortality and tens of thousands of annual hospitalizations, which affect low-income women the most.  While it is unlikely that recent changes will be reversed in the more institutionalized settings, the rightward shift that is occurring among especially these countries does not bode well for further liberalization and resolution to the abortion crisis.

 January 18, 2018

 * Merike Blofield is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami.  Christina Ewig is Professor of Public Affairs and Director of the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

Structural Reforms in Chile: Moving Forward in Midst of Political Crisis

By Claudia Heiss*

Bachelet Chile

Photo Credit: Chile Ayuda a Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has done well pushing her reform agenda despite a series of scandals regarding the illegal financing of political campaigns and abuse of power by her daughter-in-law.  Bachelet started with 58 percent support and the highest electoral margin of victory since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.  Her New Majority coalition incorporated the Communist Party and replaced the Concertación, the center-left coalition defeated in 2010 at the end of her first period, and after 20 years in power.  Bachelet’s current program reflected a left-turn and an intention to correct perceived flaws of a transition criticized for assuming too many features of the model imposed by the dictatorship.  The program included a tax plan to finance education reform introducing free university in a commoditized market of superior education.  This project was the offspring of massive student protests in 2011.  Another proposal was to replace the dictatorship-era 1980 Constitution through an “institutional, democratic, and participatory” process.

The scandals have hurt Bachelet’s popularity – she ended her first term in 2010 with 80 percent support and is now at historical lows below 30 percent – undermined the legitimacy of the political parties and Congress, and prompted a surge of social mobilizations.  (Slower economic growth, owing to the low price of copper, has contributed to the government’s unpopularity.)  But the President has scored some big wins.  In addition to the tax and education reforms she sought, the government has achieved important advances in the direction of its political program:

  • In 2015, a proportional system replaced the Binomial electoral system, which severely distorted popular will in the election of representatives and granted veto power in Congress to the political heirs of the dictatorship.
  • The campaign finance scandals led to the recent approval of a “Probity Agenda,” including higher transparency, forbidding corporate donations to political campaigns, and establishing a new law to regulate political parties.
  • A bill to make the main regional authority, the Intendente, elective rather than appointed by the President – a major step toward decentralization – has passed the Senate.
  • The decriminalization of therapeutic abortion, currently punished in only five countries, was approved by the Chamber of Deputies.
  • Congress is in the final steps of approving a labor reform meant to increase the negotiating power of workers towards their employers.
  • A complex constitutional reform process was launched last year, and this month the government selected 216 “facilitators” to assist the process and initiated a series of local meetings to discuss constitutional principles, rights, duties, and institutions. The process, the first of its kind ever in Chile, will lead to a presidential proposal to be presented to Congress.

The road ahead will not be easy for President Bachelet and her allies.  The political climate is pessimistic, and China’s economic troubles suggest the commodity bubble is over – to the detriment of the Chilean economy.  While rejected by conservatives, the changes appear as insufficient to those who want more radical reforms.  The labor bill has been criticized by union leaders as not allowing enough collective bargaining, and the proposal for constitutional change falls short of a binding participatory process like a Constituent Assembly or a referendum would be.  Bachelet, however, has deftly channeled anger about the scandals into the constructive reforms of the Probity Agenda, and she changed the perception of what is achievable in Chile in terms of progressive political and social transformations.  While public opinion is currently harsh with the government and with political elites, her second term, which ends in 2018, could in the long run consolidate her legacy as an effective reformer even in the face of adversity.

April 14, 2016

*Claudia Heiss is Assistant Professor at Universidad de Chile’s Instituto de Asuntos Públicos and researcher at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies, COES.

The Zika Virus and a New Debate on Reproductive Rights

By Rachel Nadelman*

Zika Women

Photo Credit: Day Donaldson and PresidenciaRD / Flickr / Creative Commons

The call by half a dozen Latin American and Caribbean governments for women to put off pregnancies – as the World Health Organization warns the feared Zika virus is “spreading explosively” – is stimulating a new debate on reproductive rights in the region.  El Salvador’s Health Ministry has urged women to “avoid becoming pregnant this year and next,” and Brazil, Jamaica, Colombia, and others are issuing similar advisories.  A mosquito-borne disease spreading rapidly in the Western Hemisphere for the first time, Zika is blamed for causing devastating neurological birth defects in newborns whose mothers contract the virus during pregnancy.  The U.S. Center on Disease Control has advised pregnant women to avoid travel to the more than 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries now hosting the disease.

Named for the Uganda forest where it was discovered in the late 1940s, Zika is carried and transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, best known as the vector for life-threatening viruses like yellow fever and dengue.  Within the Western Hemisphere, the Aedes population has increased drastically in recent years, linked by scientists to changes in climate.  Yet Zika’s arrival in Latin America last year, first documented in Brazil, and subsequent expansion did not attract major attention until the pattern of birth defects emerged.  Zika’s symptoms are sometimes imperceptible or typically mild, including fever, joint aches, and conjunctivitis, so health officials did not consider it a major threat to the general population.  Although definitive clinical proof is still lacking, Zika is now linked to microcephaly, a rare neurological condition that causes children to be born with small heads because of abnormal brain development in the womb or immediately after birth.  The emergence of Zika in Latin America has coincided with a more than 20-fold increase in the incidence of microcephaly.  (Brazil has reported 4,000 cases in the past year, a drastic increase from just 150 in 2014).  The babies suffer from poor brain function and reduced life expectancy.  Doctors are finding traces of the virus in the brains of microcephaly-inflicted babies who were stillborn or died soon after birth.

Warnings and advisories offer no help to the millions of women who live in afflicted countries.  Governments are launching fumigation programs to reduce the Aedes mosquito population and thereby limit disease transmission.  Asking populations to refrain from having children appears a bit facile, if not cynical, in a region with low levels of access to birth control for reasons that range from religious dictates to economic obstacles.  Severely restrictive abortion laws also complicate potential parents’ options.  Five Latin American countries (including Honduras and El Salvador, hard hit by Zika) ban abortion without exception, even to save the mother’s life.  Others criminalize abortion with few allowances.  According to the Guttmacher institute, 95 percent of abortions in Latin America are unsafe, contributing to high maternal mortality rates. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Zika’s link to these devastating birth defects has generated unprecedented public discussion throughout Latin America about women’s and families’ rights and responsibilities for taking control of reproduction.  It is far too early to know if the health advisories will have practical impact on the incidence of microcephaly – or on attitudes toward reproductive rights over the longer term.   

February 1, 2016

* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service.  Her dissertation research focuses on El Salvador’s decision to leave its gold resources unmined.