This article was written by Jessica Getz, program officer with the PPFA International Divisionâ€™s Latin America and Caribbean program.Â
In early 2000, the mother of a 12-year-old girl in Cochabamba, Bolivia, learned that her daughter had been raped by her stepfather and that the girl was pregnant.Â Devastated, the mother and daughter decided that abortion was their best option. Given the restrictive abortion laws in Bolivia, they looked to the courts in Cochabamba for help and support.
In Bolivia, abortion is permitted to save the life of the woman, to preserve her physical health, and in cases of rape or incest.Â While this law exists on paper, abortion is still taboo, and many people are afraid to talk about it.Â
Nonetheless, the woman and her daughter decided to follow the appropriate legal channels. They requested a legal abortion through the judicial system in Cochabamba.
After hearing the case, a judge in Cochabamba authorized the girl to have a legal abortion.Â The decision sparked outrage, and physicians throughout Cochabamba protested, declaring that they would not perform the abortion based on their religious or moral beliefs.Â The Catholic Church, a powerful and influential institution in Bolivia, publicly renounced the judgeâ€™s decision and threatened to excommunicate him from the church.
Although the girl had been granted authorization for a legal abortion, her mother was unable to find a provider in Cochabamba who would perform the procedure due to the publicity the case had generated.Â
Every day, women around the world face similarly heart-wrenching situations. Twenty-six percent of the worldâ€™s population lives in countries where abortion is generally prohibited.Â In countries where abortion is heavily restricted, the government usually permits abortion in cases of rape or incest or to preserve the life of the woman.Â To avoid the lengthy judicial process that is usually required to obtain authorization for a legal abortion under one of these statutes, many women choose to find an abortion provider without going through the courts.Â Not surprisingly, these providers are often unofficial and untrained.
Tragically, many women die or suffer severe physical injury after going through the procedure with an untrained provider.Â Worldwide, there are approximately 19 million unsafe abortions performed annually, with the majority occurring in developing countries. The World Health Organization estimates that unsafe abortion accounts for 13 percent of all maternal deaths. In South America, approximately 2.9 million unsafe abortions are performed each year, resulting in 3,000 deaths.Â
In Cochabamba, fearing that her daughter would either be forced to go through a risky pregnancy and birth or receive an unsafe abortion from an untrained provider, the mother turned to local womenâ€™s groups for help. These groups worked together to find a provider who would give the girl the care she needed.Â
Despite their collective efforts, the womenâ€™s groups were unable to find a doctor or health center in Cochabamba to provide the abortion. The providers were all too afraid of the repercussions they might face from the public and from the Catholic Church.Â
The womenâ€™s groups were able to find one health center in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, to provide the abortion, and they petitioned the judge to allow the girl to obtain the procedure there.Â The judge agreed.
On March 9, 2000, nearly two weeks after the judge made his ruling allowing the abortion, the girl went to La Paz.Â The following day, she received a safe and legal abortion at the one clinic that was willing to take on the case.Â Knowing the difficult time she and her mother had faced, the staff at the health center took pains to ensure they were comfortable and that their privacy was respected.
The health center, the provider, the woman, and her daughter have all remained anonymous, despite the legality of the abortion, for fear of what could happen if the public, the church, or the government discovered their identities.Â Â
Learn more about Planned Parenthoodâ€™s work to protect women from unsafe abortion in Bolivia and around the world.