One of the Correa government’s slogans
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa is a popular Latin American leader, probably best known in the living rooms of the global village these days for giving asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London) and more recently offering a haven to American whistleblower Edward Snowden – an offer later withdrawn.
A stand-off with the US over Snowden in June saw the socialist president cheekily offering to forgo $32 million a year in customs benefits and donate the money to training Americans in human rights in order to “avoid violations of privacy, torture and other actions that are denigrating to humanity”. The episode seems typical of his populist grandstanding against “American imperialism” in the style of the late Hugo Chavez.
Last week, however, Correa found himself having to give a lesson in human rights to his own party, and he did so in what was, even for him, a dramatic way.
In the face of a push to relax the country’s abortion law as part of a reform of the Penal Code, he threatened to resign. “They can do what they want,” he told reporters. “I will never approve the decriminalisation of abortion.” He added that if such “acts of betrayal and disloyalty” continue, “I will tender my resignation.”
His outburst had the desired effect. The Congresswoman who proposed the measure withdrew it, though she gently warned the president “you are making a mistake”.
Politically, that may be true, but not from the point of view of human rights – if that is what is really at stake. Nor in terms of the country’s Constitution which, according to the president, defends life from the moment of conception.
That was not entirely clear five years ago when the Constitution was being re-written. At that stage pro-life groups and the Church were nervous about language stating that every person has the right to decide when and how many children to have, although Correa insisted that he and his Allianza Pais party were staunch defenders of life. Now, in the moment of truth, he has made good his pledge.
As well as “a defender of life” Correa describes himself as “left-wing, humanist, Roman Catholic”. This heady mixture makes sense in his part of the world but not to the global abortion movement, which is used to sweeping socialist regimes into its basket. Latin America remains a huge challenge for them.
So far only Cuba, Mexico City and Uruguay (after a former president vetoed the move) allow abortion on demand in the first trimester. Five countries still ban abortion completely (Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and the Dominican Republic) while those in between make exceptions for such circumstances as the life or health of the mother (saving the life of the mother with the result that the fetus dies is, of course, not abortion in the moral sense anyway), rape, incest and/or fetal deformity.
Ecuador’s law currently allows abortion throughout pregnancy when the life or health of the mother is at risk, or in the case of rape for mentally handicapped women. The amendment rejected by the president extended the latter exception to all women who claim to have been raped. Groups such as Human Rights Watch, Planned Parenthood (International) are pressing for complete decriminalisation, and the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) for further exceptions.
These groups base their campaign for decriminalisation not only on an alleged “right” to abortion, but on the claim that countries where abortion remains illegal have extremely high rates of “unsafe” (illegal) abortions and maternal mortality. The World Health Organisation estimates that there are 4.2 million unsafe abortions each in Latin America and that 12 percent of all maternal deaths in the region (including the Caribbean) in 2008 were caused by abortions.
But, even if President Correa were less macho than he is, he need not be scared by these figures. Although they are repeated over and over in world media, new evidence shows that the assumptions and estimates on which they are based are false.
Abortion had been legal in Chile for many years when it was banned in 1989. If the WHO et al were correct, illegal abortions would have started to increase then, leading to an increase in maternal deaths. But when Chilean epidemiologist Dr Elard Koch and colleagues looked at population data from 1957 to 2007 they found that was not the case. Maternal deaths, which had been falling for a long time, continued to decline after the law was changed and then levelled out.
In fact today, with abortion still banned, Chile has one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world, outstripping the United States and, within the Americas, second only to Canada. And the mothers most likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth today are those who delay motherhood to the point where conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and obesity are factors. It’s this trend that has prevented maternal mortality declining even further.
If not “safe abortion” what is the key to safe motherhood? The three most important factors in lowering maternal deaths, the Koch study found, were delivery by skilled birth attendants, access to maternal healthcare services such as nutrition programmes, and women’s educational level – which also lowered fertility.
A similar study of Mexico City led by Koch found that the official abortion surveillance agency (GIRE) registered 12,221 elective abortions for 2009, while the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a US abortion advocacy group drawing on opinion surveys of health workers, estimated a figure of 122,455 – ten times as many! In the same year, out of 1207 total maternal deaths registered in Mexico, only 25 could be attributed to illegal induced abortion. Further Latin America studies are pending.
From this we can conclude that although Rafael Correa may eventually find himself on the wrong side of abortion politics, he is not on the wrong side of science – neither biology, since the newly conceived child is a human being with intrinsic human rights, nor statistics, which, when ideology and estimates are controlled for, show that legalised abortion is superfluous to the health and welfare of women.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.