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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 October, 2003, 09:50 GMT 10:50 UK
Illegal abortions 'killing South American women'
Women on the streets of Bolivia
Mothers in Bolivia and Peru are particularly at risk
Illegal abortions are a major cause of death among mothers in many countries in Latin America, an international conference on the subject has been told.

Every year four million women in Latin America have an illegal abortion, according to the World Health Organisation.

Preventing illegal abortions, which leave hundreds of thousands of woman dead or seriously injured, has been the focus of the conference in Mexico. Many groups present believe the only way to reduce the numbers is to make the practice legal.

"It is the first to the third cause of maternal death in different countries in Latin America," the chair of the conference, Maria Consuelo Mejilla - director of Catholics For The Right To Decide, a Mexican pressure group - told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"It is affecting mostly poor women.

"Unsafe and illegal abortion in Latin America is a social justice problem. Women who have no resources die."


In Peru alone, an estimated 50,000 women a year either die or suffer serious complications after an illegal abortion.

In most Central, South American and Caribbean countries, a woman wishing to terminate a pregnancy has either to go abroad or risk an operation performed by unqualified medical personnel.

Mexican women
Poverty is one of the key reasons for the high numbers of illegal abortions
One Peruvian woman who narrowly survived such an operation described her experience to Outlook.

"When I found out I was pregnant I was desperate," she said.

She explained how she had been separated from her children's father, but had fallen pregnant to her new partner after being given misleading advice on how to use the contraceptive pill.

"I kept thinking how my children would disrespect me, having more than one father to my children," she said.

"I knew that I couldn't have that baby."

To have the abortion, she went to a "run-down house in a back street" that she had been informed of by a friend.

"A woman appeared. I gave her the money and she made me lie down on a couch. I could see that she had a tube of something, but I didn't know what was inside it," she added.

"She told me that what she was about to do was really going to hurt. She pushed the tube right up inside me and told me not to take it out until a few hours had passed.

"I felt as though my bladder was swelling and swelling. She gave me some tablets and sent me home, telling me to expect the kind of pain you feel when you're giving birth."

Fear of arrest

The woman said she struggled home crying from clinic. She did not know it, but the tube was filled with hydrochloric acid.

UN Population and Development conference
South American countries have committed themselves to improving women's rights
When she removed it, "hot liquid came out, and then blood," she said.

"It just kept coming all night. After hours of bleeding I started getting delirious, calling out all my brothers' names, when I hadn't seen them in years.

"'Don't call anyone', I kept saying. I felt as if I was losing my mind.

"From then on I don't remember anything until we got to the hospital. I kept passing out when we got there. I was so, so cold."

Many doctors in Latin America are against abortions, and there are some who report their patients to the police after they have operated on women for whom complications have arisen - although this was not true in this case

"Fortunately the doctor was wonderful... he actually cared about me," the woman said.

"I knew that if they found out what I'd done they could put me in jail.

"I kept saying, 'I've just fallen over.' But the doctor knew."

It was explained to the woman that the abortion had perforated her uterus, which was now full of pus and acid.

"'Where did they do this to you?', they kept asking. Then they gave me three hours to live.

"Even with the operation they thought I could die. My insides had been completely infected."

She said that as a result of the operation she has lost her uterus and can no longer have children.

"I'd really wanted to have another child, later on in life, but now it's impossible," she said.

"I had a very complicated recovery. I kept relapsing and my internal organs kept reinfecting.

"I'm so lucky to be alive."


Ms Mejilla of Catholics For The Right To Decide said that doctors' opposition to abortions could lead to some women being "maltreated" at hospitals.

She outlined the case of one 15-year-old Mexican girl who became pregnant after being raped and wished, together with her mother, to have an abortion.

However, the doctor they saw was against the practice, and delayed any help until eventually the girl had no option but to give birth.

Ms Mejilla also said that inadequate access to contraception and reproductive health advice was one of the main reasons why there were so many abortions in the region.

"The fact is that women have no power to control the reproductive capacity," she said.

However, she stressed that Latin American countries had made long-standing commitments on the issue - commitments that they had later ratified at the 1995 Beijing conference on women.

"All our governments were committed to make reproductive health services accessible for all women.

"All these commitments have influenced, somehow, policies at the national level.

"But still there is a long, long distance to walk."

US exports anti-abortion policy
28 Jun 03  |  Americas
Europe's terms for terminations
02 Jun 02  |  Europe


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