On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court passed Roe vs. Wade, a landmark decision that guaranteed a woman’s right to legal abortion services. In the 40 years since its passage, the ruling has allowed thousands in this country to avoid the dire consequences of unsafe and illegal procedures, and has also catalyzed four decades of political action in the Americas—both in support of and in opposition to reproductive rights.
In Latin America most women do not have access to legally terminate a pregnancy—even one that has resulted from rape, incest or that may critically threaten her health. Each year over 4 million of the region’s women have abortions, with approximately 95 percent of the procedures taking place in unsafe conditions. The results contribute to abortion-related rates of mortality that rank among the world’s highest. And the evidence is clear: criminalizing abortions does not decrease its practice or the incidence of unwanted pregnancies, but it does jeopardize women’s lives in terms of health, safety and economic well-being.
Each year thousands of Latin American abortion rights proponents and opponents work tirelessly on the issue—from grassroots organizations to church groups, politicians, lobbyists, and nongovernmental organizations.
The results have been mixed: while the procedure has been legalized to some degree in Colombia, Mexico City, and Uruguay (in addition to Cuba and parts of the Caribbean), a total ban on abortion is in force in Nicaragua, Chile, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Honduras, and other countries. In the United States, individual states have spent 40 years attacking Roe vs. Wade, gradually placing more and more restrictions on the accessibility and availability of reproductive rights on the local level. In the first days of the 2013 congressional session, two women legislators introduced a bill to block federal funding from any organization that performs abortions, primarily targeting Planned Parenthood—an organization critical to all areas of family planning.
For two generations, Roe vs. Wade has allowed U.S. women the right to make decisions about their reproductive health. Many do not recall the conditions that existed prior to its passage, with women seeking back alley procedures from unqualified providers, or resorting to home remedies that often had serious or even fatal consequences. In Latin America—and in the United States—the fight for reproductive rights is far from over. The legacy of Roe vs. Wade lies both in its accomplishments in ensuring the safety and well-being of countless women, as well as in the challenges and opportunities it provides for millions more.
Read The Public Debate Over Private Lives (Summer 2012) co-authored by Jane Marcus-Delgado.