The UN Urged Peru To Relax Its Abortion Stance. Lawmakers Did the Opposite

Across Latin America, a backlash against women’s rights is underway and girls are criminalized for miscarrying

The UN Urged Peru To Relax Its Abortion Stance. Lawmakers Did the Opposite
Protesters demand the decriminalization of abortion in Peru in 2021. (Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images)

Camila’s body folds in on itself, eyes fixated on the cuffs of her sweater and thick black hair shielding her face. The 19-year-old, an Indigenous teenager from the Peruvian mountains, sits close to her lawyer, arms touching, in a small office overlooking Lima’s skyline. In clipped and hushed sentences, she begins her story.

At the age of 9, Camila was raped by her father. He ordered her not to tell anyone, threatening to kill her and her mother and brother if she did. For a while, his threats worked and she stayed silent. His vicious assault was the start of years of violence, abuse that would make Camila pregnant at the age of 13 and leave her ostracized from her community.

“I was so alone,” Camila tells New Lines in her first interview with the media. (Camila is a pseudonym given by her lawyers in coordination with her). “People in the town would stare at me. I stopped going to school,” she says, sitting small and slumped, her face buried in her hands. She pauses for a moment, and says she wishes to continue — right before the interview started, overwhelmed by the conversation to come, she spent an hour on the phone speaking to her psychologist and legal team.

Despite telling various health providers that she had been raped by her father and did not want the pregnancy, no one informed the young teenager of her right to a so-called therapeutic abortion, one deemed medically necessary and performed before the pregnancy reaches 20 weeks. Legal in Peru for a century, they are granted when the pregnant person’s life is threatened, as in the case of Camila — an adolescent pregnant from incest.

Instead, a team from the health center visited Camila’s home where they proposed a birth plan. When Camila began having suicidal thoughts, her illiterate and disabled mother tried to procure an abortion for her.

Requests for an abortion were repeatedly ignored by authorities, forcing the teenager to continue with the high-risk pregnancy. At three months in, Camila suffered a miscarriage — a loss that would lead to her being falsely accused, investigated and convicted.

Her case, “Camila v. Peru,” brought to the United Nations by a local reproductive rights organization, resulted in a historic ruling last summer that found the Peruvian state had violated Camila’s rights. The U.N.’s Committee on the Rights of the Child also urged Peru to decriminalize abortion in all cases of child pregnancy and provide compensation for Camila to rebuild her life.

But Camila is yet to receive any money, and has been unable to return to her community. “Women’s issues here are largely ignored. They do not care about us,” she tells me in the Peruvian capital, some 600 miles from her Quechua-speaking settlement of Huanipaca. In Lima, she rents a room in a house with three strangers, which she has decorated with teddy bears and soccer shirts. She first found work in a gold mine, and now works in a market while she studies to attend university — she wants to become a nurse.

“When I was pregnant the nurses treated me so badly, and I don’t want other girls to go through that,” she explains. “They said I provoked the abortion. It wasn’t true. The nurses kept screaming and screaming.”

Latin America is home to some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws; until 2018, some 97% of the region’s women lived in countries with severe limitations, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a U.S. nonprofit. In many countries, abortion is only permitted to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape, while several others ban it without exception and criminalize those who have “unexplained” miscarriages. Hard-won rights are under increasing threat, part of a backlash against the pro-choice “Green Wave” movement across the region, and the ripple effect of the unraveling of Roe v. Wade two years ago when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturned a woman’s right to abortion, which has emboldened ultraconservative voices across the world.

And while the Catholic church is declining in popularity across Latin America — according to Latinobarometro, the premier regional survey, the percentage of believers dropped from 70% in 2010 to 57% in 2020, despite the region’s first pope — it has still proven a stalwart against abortion rights.

“These attacks on abortion have not come out of nowhere,” says Paula Avila-Guillen, a human rights lawyer and executive director of the Women’s Equality Center in Washington. “[They are] part of a well-coordinated, well-funded movement to push governments and their legislatures to roll back rights and adopt anti-choice laws.”

Fetal personhood laws have become the latest frontier in the battle over reproductive rights across the Americas — and are increasingly being operationalized by anti-abortion groups.

In March, Peruvian lawmakers approved such a bill with 87 votes in favor, 18 against and seven abstentions. The bill, first presented by the ultraconservative bench last November, stipulates that health professionals are obliged to provide special protections for the “unborn child.” Lawmakers in at least four U.S. states have in recent months also advanced fetal personhood legislation after Alabama’s top court ruled in February that embryos count as “children.”

The law in Peru was introduced by Milagros Jauregui Martinez de Aguayo, an evangelical pastor and member of Congress who calls herself a “defender of life and family.” “The conceived has rights!” she posted on X (formerly Twitter), after what she described as a “victory.” De Aguayo did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

While some supporters of the Peruvian bill have argued it does not impact existing abortion access, experts fear what the wording could mean in practice. “Congress is trying to block all possibilities of having an abortion and to generate public opinion that this is not something women should have access to,” says Isbelia Ruiz, Camila’s lawyer at the Center for the Promotion and Defence of Sexual and Reproductive Rights (Promsex).

Guadalupe Torres, an abortion specialist and project coordinator at The Peruvian Institute for Responsible Parenthood, a Peruvian sexual and reproductive health organization, worries the bill could be used to hinder already limited access. “Our greatest concern is that this type of recognition of the conceived could be used to confuse ordinary citizens,” she says, adding that adolescent girls who are victims of rape are particularly susceptible to the subterfuge.

Among those who worked on the embryo bill is Susan Vargas, the Peruvian director of the 40 Days for Life campaign, an anti-abortion group created in Texas in 2004 that has been operating in Latin America for the past 10 years. Lourdes Varela, the director of Iberoamerica campaigns for the organization says: “The bill is important, a victory. But Peru still has therapeutic abortion. Our next step is to completely ban abortion — in Peru and all of Latin America.”

In Peru, the U.S.-based campaign operates in seven cities and works with 200 Catholic volunteers. Vargas has confirmed to New Lines that her opinion on the bill was requested, along with information about how her campaign operates.

The organization operates in all Latin American countries, except Belize and French Guiana, which it hopes to expand into. It runs 270 campaigns across the region — which involve praying and fasting outside abortion clinics — some with more than 1,000 volunteers, and most of its funding comes from the U.S. The organization says the fasting has been inspired by Jesus, who fasted for 40 days and nights before being tempted by the devil in the desert.

“Our campaigns have been very fruitful, we are expanding and always looking for more cities to work in,” Varela tells me in an interview, adding that Mexico is a priority. The organization wants to expand globally, too. “We have a presence in almost all of Europe, in Africa, we are the biggest pro-life movement in the world. It needs to be done by Jesus Christ,” she says.

When asked by New Lines if abortions should be allowed for children under 16, or for women in cases of rape, she says that “no one should have the right to an abortion. … Abortions only help the rapist, not the victim. There is no justification in killing a baby.”

The position that life begins at conception has been debated for hundreds of years in cultures across the world, and is recorded in Hindu texts and the laws of the Byzantine Empire, but the Catholic church first brought these beliefs to the Americas during colonization.

Then, in 1969, Latin America set an important precedent, creating the only modern international treaty specifically referencing fetal rights. The American Convention on Human Rights, a pact that has since been adopted by 24 countries, says that life shall be protected “from the moment of conception.” Signatories are encouraged to adopt the convention’s wording into their constitutions, and many have: laws recognizing the rights of the unborn child exist in countries including El Salvador, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.

But following the recent “Green Wave” feminist movement, women in three of the region’s four most populous countries — Mexico, Colombia and Argentina — have won greater reproductive rights. Abortions were legalized in Argentina in 2020 and Colombia in 2022, and decriminalized by the Supreme Court in Mexico in 2023.

While progress continues in some countries, others are now witnessing a rise in anti-abortion rhetoric and a so-called “Blue Wave” movement after its protesters who wear the blue-and-white Argentinian flag — and experts worry recent gains could be reversed.

In Brazil, a Supreme Court hearing on abortion, which could have paved the way for its decriminalization across the country, was scrapped last year. In 2021, the Congress of Honduras, where abortion is already banned without exception, increased the number of votes needed to repeal its abortion law from two-thirds to three-quarters. In Chile, a right-wing constituent council sought to protect the “life of the unborn” in December — which, if it had passed, could have tightened the country’s already strict abortion laws. In El Salvador, where some of the harshest anti-abortion laws in the Americas can result in women being sentenced to up to 40 years in prison, President Nayib Bukele has repeatedly ruled out any changes to the abortion laws.

Meanwhile, Argentina, a country that was crucial in leading the Green Wave movement and which legalized abortion in 2020, elected anti-abortion candidate Javier Milei as its new president in November. On his campaign trail, the hard-right “libertarian” pledged to hold a referendum on abortion rights and since being inaugurated has called abortion “aggravated murder.” His words are already having an impact, with doctors across the country reporting that colleagues are refusing to provide abortions out of fear of reprisals.

In Mexico and Colombia, where abortion has also recently been decriminalized, accessing a voluntary abortion remains difficult for many women, with local or state authorities able to impede federally recognized rights. Nongovernmental organizations say women are still forced to rely on activists and clandestine methods to carry out medical abortions at home.

“This is a somber reminder that Trump-style far-right authoritarianism is now making its way across the Latin American continent and with it a growing anti-abortion agenda,” says Avila-Guillen.

A January report by Fos Feminista, an alliance of more than 170 feminist organizations centered around the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women, found anti-abortion actors in Colombia have used Roe v. Wade in campaigning and to capitalize on media confusion.

It also found that anti-abortion rights organizations in the U.S. spent at least $342 million between 2008 and 2017 in Central and South America, adding that the true figure is likely higher as religious organizations were exempted from reporting funding data.

Elga Prado, a coordinator at the Manuela Ramos Movement, a feminist Peruvian group that promotes women’s reproductive rights, believes that the Andean country’s conservative and religious society plays a stronger role than Washington’s influence. “Some schools are not even allowed to teach sexual education, because parents think their children will become LGBTQ — which they think is terrible. There is a lot of misinformation.” In 2008, the Peruvian government produced guidelines for teaching sexual education, but according to research by the Guttmacher Institute, these have not been thoroughly implemented due to a lack of political will. Its 2017 study found that only 9% of students had learned all of the topics necessary for sex education to be considered comprehensive.

One woman who was forced to seek an underground abortion in Peru blames the strong religious culture. “There is too much blame from religion and men on women in this country. Women remain in silence,” she tells New Lines. Her interview takes place close to a towering statue of former Pope John Paul II; 76% of Peruvians identify as Catholic and 14% as evangelical.

Susana Chavez, director of Promsex and a former midwife, describes the “anti-abortion forces” in Peru as “strong and powerful.” “We are living in a very critical political situation. We have a vocal group against abortion and gender policies, they are creating polarization and people feel afraid.”

Such tightening only pushes abortion services underground. Pinned and taped to the utility poles of Peru’s lower-income neighborhoods are posters advertising “menstrual regulation” services, a local euphemism for abortion procedures. On average, 19% of Peruvian women at all socioeconomic levels report having had at least one abortion in their lifetime, according to research published in the reproductive health journal Contraception in 2023, while unsafe abortions are the fourth biggest cause of maternal death in the country, according to government data.

New Lines spoke to several Peruvian women who underwent clandestine abortions. One hemorrhaged afterward and developed an infection, but was too afraid to visit a hospital, worried that she would be penalized. Another, a teenager who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described how “the clinic was in an office block, in a small room. I don’t remember much, but I remember the doctor didn’t wear gloves.” She was given no anesthesia. “Women always find a way,” says Prado. “They find pills, go to clandestine clinics, use sticks. Some women in rural areas jump from horses or heights.”

Camila’s story is not the only high-profile abortion case in Peru. When Diana Aleman, a Venezuelan migrant, miscarried in 2020, medical staff threatened to call immigration authorities, accusing her of having an illegal abortion. Diana was found dead that same night — according to Peruvian authorities, she jumped out of a window on the third floor. An 11-year-old from Loreto, a region in the Amazon, who had faced systematic abuse by her stepfather from the age of 6, became pregnant in August of last year. After the mother of the girl, called Mila by her legal team, requested an abortion, a board of doctors decided that the child should continue with the pregnancy, arguing that rape cases are not included in the relevant legal protocol, despite Camila’s landmark ruling. The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child intervened on behalf of Mila and helped her secure the termination. Her lawyers say she has recovered well.

Camila says that 11 months after her U.N. ruling, she has not received any information regarding changes to the law. A U.N. spokesperson says it received a report from the Peruvian state in December outlining the actions taken since the ruling, but that the claims have not yet been assessed. The Peruvian Ministry of Health did not reply to requests for comment about the steps it has taken.

Camila is now demanding that the state follow through on the U.N. recommendation that children can access abortions. “We are forced to be mothers and told it is our fault,” she says. “No one hears us — we are ignored.”

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