On April 21, a 10-year-old girl and her mother walked into the Trinidad Maternity and Children’s Hospital in Asunción, Paraguay. The girl (whose name has been withheld) complained of sharp pains in her stomach, which appeared visibly swollen.
Worried her daughter might have a tumor, the girl’s mother asked doctors to examine her. What they discovered shocked and roiled the country: After being allegedly raped by her stepfather, who had already been reported to the police for sexual abuse, the 10 year old was more than 20 weeks pregnant.
The case has sparked international outcry and reignited a bitter discussion in the majority-Catholic country about abortion, which is illegal under all circumstances except to save a woman’s life. Despite a plea from the girl’s mother, Paraguayan authorities are reportedly denying the girl an abortion unless she develops serious medical conditions that put her life at risk—a sticking point that has galvanized players on both sides of the debate. The Catholic Church weighed in, saying human life begins “at the moment of conception,” while the director of the Asunción hospital publicly deemed the pregnancy high-risk. Nevertheless, government officials, including the Paraguayan health minister, say there’s “no indication” that the girl’s life is in danger. The director of healthcare programs at the ministry of public health and wellness went a step further, telling The Guardian that, given the girl’s stage of pregnancy, “it’s even more dangerous for [her] to undergo a procedure [to abort] without a well-considered medical, obstetrical evaluation.”
Meanwhile, human rights organizations are calling on the government to grant the girl an abortion, arguing that the country’s strict abortion ban violates international human rights law and is tantamount to torture. “Under international law they should also have allowances for rape and incest, whether or not the life and health of the mother is at risk,” Tarah Demant, the senior director of the Identity and Discrimination Unit at Amnesty International told me. “In South America, we see an increasing restriction of abortion rights. This is a region in which there are severe abortion restrictions, and what this means is that when women and girls cannot access abortion, [it] becomes more dangerous. So [enacting restrictions doesn’t] prevent abortion, it only makes it more dangerous and deadly for women and girls.”
According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, more than 60 percent of the world’s population now lives in countries where abortion is generally permitted, and more than 25 countries have liberalized their abortion laws in the past two decades. Latin America does not fall in step with this trend. The hemisphere is home to some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world: In seven countries—Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname—abortion is prohibited under any and all circumstances, including to save a woman’s life. The region has the highest proportional number of maternal deaths due to unsafe abortions in the world: Nearly one million women in Latin America and the Caribbean are hospitalized annually due to complications from unsafe abortion, and it’s estimated that close to 2,000 Latin American women die every year from dangerous abortion procedures. In Paraguay, 28 adolescent girls perished last year due to birth-related complications.
The severity of the hemisphere’s abortion laws has come to light in a number of recent cases. In 2013, in a harrowing story that dominated Chilean headlines, an 11-year-old girl named “Belen” was denied an abortion after being raped by her stepfather. Chile’s president praised her “depth and maturity,” while enraged pro-choice activists ransacked a cathedral in the capital, Santiago. In El Salvador, 17 women—often dubbed “Las 17”—are serving jail time for “pregnancy-related crimes,” while a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman named “Beatriz” nearly died from lupus after the government refused to grant her an abortion.
The normal dangers associated with childbirth—in Paraguay, a woman of reproductive age has a one in 310 chance of dying from labor-related complications—are even more pronounced for children bringing pregnancies to term. “It is cruel to force a 10-year-old girl to carry her pregnancy to term,” Dr. Dalia Brahmi, the director of clinical affairs at Ipas, told The Guardian, explaining that adolescents under the age of 15 have a high risk of infection and other adverse health consequences, including preterm birth and intrauterine growth restriction.
In spite of the clear health risks associated with the Paraguayan girl’s pregnancy, however, “she’s still being denied access to an abortion,” Demant told me. “This violates multiple international human rights charters and laws to which Paraguay is a party, including the convention of the rights of the child.”