Each year the number of adolescent girls who get pregnant and decide to keep the child gets lower, however the issue of the teenage pregnancy still keeps on holding a prominent place in the list of social and medical problems of the developing countries. Adolescent mothers face a wide variety of problems and insecurities that promise to have a major impact both on their lives and the lives of their children. Most of the girls are forced to drop their education, and the necessity to bring up a child and to support their own living without any help from their families or the government leads to a sequence of choices that only worsen the situation. Such young mothers have to work, but are not offered a salary high enough to make a good living due to the lack of education and, thus, qualification. The children of teenage mothers are usually raised in poverty and by uneducated and unprotected single mothers, suffer from malnutrition and lack of motherly attention; they usually encounter major difficulties with breaking away from the poverty cycle and climbing up the social ladder and are also exposed to the adolescence pregnancy risk in future. But more important than the social and economic issues are the health problems that both the young mother and the infant can have due to the yet unformed and unprepared body of the adolescent. The teenagers aged 15-19 and bearing a child often face twice as high risk of pregnancy complications and maternal mortality compared to the older women. Meanwhile the girls, who decided to go through the abortion procedure, especially the illegal and unsafe one, which is the only option in several Latin American counties, are very likely to be exposed to the adverse effects, such as severe physical and mental health complication risks, infant mortality, preterm birth, children with physical and mental defects and many others(as cited in Samandari&Speizer, 2010).
According to the World Health Organization the teenage birth rate in Latin America is approximately 18% comparing to the global average of 13%, thus the region comes second after the sub-Saharan Africa; at the same time Latin America comes first in the list of the regions with the highest abortion levels, again coming second after Africa in the number of the unsafe abortions (Woodbury, 2013). Not only young pregnant girls have to survive the stigma and judgment by the predominantly Catholic society of the Latin America, but also find a way to overcome the legislative obstacles, among which is not only the prohibition of the abortion, but also a severe punishment, as defined by the respective laws of the Latin American states. What are the reasons for such a high level of abortion criminalization in the region?
Once colonized by Spain and Portugal, Latin America is a highly Catholic region also known for its strict and sometimes inhumane abortion laws, regulations and practices. Most of the civilized world has adjusted its legislation to the modern realities, where women’s rights are highly protected, including the right to exercise control over their own bodies. Despite this fact there are still five countries in Latin America, namely Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic andHonduras,which still fully criminalize the abortion. At the same time other countries of the regionhave partially or fully decriminalized the procedure, depending on the specific country’s legislation and the circumstances of the abortion.The Catholic Church is usually deemed to be in charge for the existing state of affairs in the region, however, it has not always been so extremely strict towards the matter, allowing women to perform abortions from 40 to 80 days after conception prior to year 1869, but this right ceased to exist with the beginning of the feministic movement at the dawn of the twentieth century that threatened to undermine the male-dominant law-making society. In the second half of the twentieth century the revolutions were spread all over the region with women fighting against the tyranny in their countries, however after the civil wars switched to peace, the women faced the denial of their own rights by the men, who were holding power in their hands and, thus, deciding on the scope of women’s rights. As the European countries started spreading the practice of the legalized abortion, the Holy See has seen the threat in the changes and pressed harder on the Latin American countries to pass the laws completely prohibiting abortion under any circumstances (Anderson, 2013). Nowadays only the abovementioned five countries of the region fully prohibit the conduct of the abortion procedure and their Penal Codesmake “no exceptions to thegeneral prohibition on the performance of abortion” (UN News Center, 2013).Such restrictions do not work as the preventive measures to reduce the number of the adolescent pregnancies and as a consequence the number of the abortions, but, to the contrary, the rate of the illegal and unsafe abortions increases within the already poor, unsafe and desperate teenagers from these countries. For example, 30% of pregnant women in El Salvador are girls below 19, and the methods they use to get rid of the baby vary greatly: from turning to a clandestine procedure with a doctor, to using some highly toxic drugs, crochet needles and even coat hangers .The research by in SamandariandSpeizer (2010) supports the case by the following statistics: “Adolescent fertility is high in Central America: The latest national health surveys from 2002–2007 indicate that fertility rates for 15–19-year-olds are 137 births per 1,000 women in Honduras, 119 in Nicaragua, 114 in Guatemala and 104 in El Salvador, while the Latin American average is 75 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19. Although these four countries have experienced modest declines in total fertility rates over the last two decades, the rate of childbearing among adolescents remains extremely high.”The teenagers in these countries can decide to breach the law and seek for an abortion on the legal or common sense grounds, especially when the conception of the child has been done through a rape or incest act, or when the maternal health is at risk due to the pregnancy, or when the fetus has fatal malformations. But what the teenagers can also expect is the conviction of a homicide and up to 30 years of prison in some countries. The outrageous consequences of their strict policy can be demonstrated in the obvious and controversial acts of fear to go against the regime. The example is the case of an 11-year-old Belén from Chile, who was repeatedly raped by her mother’s partner for several years in a row. This resulted in the girl getting pregnant in 2013 and telling she will keep the baby after a thorough consideration, instead of asking the permission to get an abortion despite the country’s full restriction. The fact that Belén’s body is too young to bear a healthy child and remain healthy at the time is obvious. Nonetheless, in his reply the President of the country did not suggest the option of the abortion, but told that Belén has “shown depth and maturity, when she said that, despite the pain caused by the man who hurt her, she wanted to have and take care of the baby” (Pothecary, 2013). Another example of the inhumane adolescence abortion rules are the abortion norms in the Nicaragua: the treatment of the severe health issues of a pregnant girl, such as AIDS or cancer, is forbidden, as the pills or chemotherapy may kill the baby. In these situations girls usually die from the complications of their diseases shortly after the baby is born.
Meanwhile the region also comprises of many other countries, whose legislation provides legal grounds for the adolescence abortion, and though the number of the unsafe abortions is still quite high, the situation moves in the right direction. Uruguay being one of the most liberal pro-right countries shows a great statistics: “Before abortion was legalized in Uruguay, the United Nations Population Fund estimated that there were 30,000 unsafe abortions attempted every year, with many women and girls dying as a result. Since the new law was passed, abortion related maternal deaths have been virtually eliminated” (Pothecary, 2013).
Apart from the political and legal aspects of the adolescent abortion problems that influence the teenagers’ decisions, there is also one important and major influence on the girl: the family. The family being the closest communicator of the person, the teenage girls in Latin America, who got pregnant and are seeking for advice or help, can rarely find one in their own mothers. The study shows that the pregnant girls usually tend to hide their situation from the family, thus, avoiding the social stigma, pressure and the fear of not being accepted by their own mothers, as well as postponing taking any decisions. Many of these girls seriously consider the option of having a child, but when revealing their secret to the mothers, they are usually simply forced to have an abortion. According to the study of the daughter-mother relationship during the teenage pregnancy in Latin America: “Such refusals to accept the adolescents' pregnancies may be a consequence of their disappointment with the un-expected event, considering that the family and social context requires that young people fulfill ideal trajectories and follow predetermined stages, such as concluding studies and becoming professionals, a view that identifies an pregnancy as inopportune and unwise” (Domingos, 2013). The lack of support and communication, the parental education about the safe sex and governmental failure to provide the girls with the family planning guidance result in the psychologically forced abortions, often illegal and conducted due to ethical, cultural and religious reasons. Those adolescents, who ended up with the forced abortion, usually tend to grow up with the sense of shame and self-disappointment, as they feel guilty for being not strong enough to confront their mothers and have a child despite the financial and social hardships. The teenagers in Latin America, who performed the abortion early in their lives, tend to carefully plan their future life and have a planned baby to eliminate the hard feelings about their first experience.
All in all, the teenage pregnancy and teenage abortion rates in Latin American countries can be explained by a range of ethical, religious, cultural, political and economic reasons. As many countries of the region have high poverty rates, the number of adolescent unsafe abortions is higher than in the more developed countries. In five states the abortion being legally prohibited, the young girls tend to expose themselves to a higher risk by turning to the unsafe abortion or by having an early child, both options affecting girls’ lives majorly. In the countries where abortions are legalized, the rate of the teenage pregnancies, abortions and maternal mortality are significantly lower. At the same time the lack of education, knowledge and information on safe sex and family planning result in sometimes forced abortions, when the family of the teenage girl insists on proceeding with the operation due to the possible consequences the girl can have to deal in her life if deciding to keep the baby. Among those are usually named the failure to obtain proper education, find a good job and having a strong family. The girls usually not being supported by the fathers of their children sometimes opt and sometimes are made to perform the abortion. This often leads to physical and mental illnesses, such as non-fertility, depression, suicidal thoughts. To change the course of the problem, the new policies must be implemented on the national and local level, giving the girls the chance to decide for themselves on whether to keep the baby or not. The increase of social awareness and the provision of help to young mothers may result in lesser levels of teenage pregnancies and abortions. As to the five Latin American countries that still prohibit abortions on any grounds, the change must be done as soon as possible, but unfortunately is a part of the historical development of the women’s rights and, thus, has to pass several stages, such a formation of strong women’s rights organizations in the countries and the international intervention in the countries’ policies. The main goal of all the reforms in all the aforementioned Latin American countries is to allow the women and young girls to make their own moral choices and give them a legal basis to perform their rights in matters of their own reproductive health and provide them with as much assistance and help as possible in case they either decide to keep the baby or perform the abortion.
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