Last week, a 14-year-old girl in Paraguay died during childbirth. She became pregnant after she was raped by a 37-year-old man, and she died while doctors performed an emergency cesarean section, trying desperately to save her and her baby, after she’d spent several weeks in the hospital for pregnancy-related complications. “Her body was not ready for a pregnancy,” said the hospital director. The baby survived.
Abortion is illegal in almost all circumstances in Paraguay. The only exception is when a pregnancy has life-threatening complications. This narrow exception is not enough to protect the lives, health, and dignity of girls and women in the country.
Abortion is illegal in Paraguay for pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest. It is illegal when the pregnancy poses a serious – but not life-threatening – health risk, and when a fetus has no hope of surviving outside the womb.
We don’t know whether the 14-year-old girl who died last week wanted to have an abortion. The decision to terminate a pregnancy is a deeply personal one. She might have chosen to continue the pregnancy even if legal abortion was an option. But at the very least, she, and her family, her faith leader or trusted confidant, and her doctor should have had the chance to discuss – and consider – the risk of continuing the pregnancy and the option to end it.
In 2015, a 10-year-old girl in Paraguay became pregnant after she was raped by her stepfather. Her mother requested permission for the girl to have an abortion, but authorities denied her request. She gave birth at age 11 – an 11-year-old rape survivor forced into motherhood against her wishes. This could have been avoided if the country allowed safe and legal abortion.
International experts have said blocking access to abortion for survivors of rape can amount to torture. Commenting on the situation in Paraguay, the Committee against Torture said the abortion ban means survivors “are constantly reminded of the violation committed against them, which causes serious traumatic stress and carries a risk of long-lasting psychological problems.”
Every day in Paraguay four girls suffer sexual violence, and two girls under age 15 give birth, according to data from the Ministry of Health. I don’t know whether the 14-year-old girl would have chosen not to continue the pregnancy that was forced on her if she had the option to safely and legally end it. But she was never given that choice.And there are hundreds of girls like her, stripped of information and power over their lives and their bodies. These are the brutal and inevitable consequences of Paraguay’s abortion law.
Paraguay should repeal all laws making abortion a crime. But even narrow exceptions would save some lives – permitting doctors, with their patients’ informed consent, to end a pregnancy when it is necessary to protect a woman or girl’s life or health, when a pregnancy results from rape or incest, or when the fetus will not survive. Paraguayan authorities should act now before any more adolescent girls suffer the consequences of the country’s abortion restrictions.