Peru legalised abortion where the mother’s life or health was at risk in 1924. But physicians refused to practice the law, pushing it underground for women unable to legally terminate pregnancies.
Ninety years later, the government has adopted national guidelines that make it easier to access a legal abortion before 22 weeks of the pregnancy, and clear up rules for the medical profession.
“Peru is making incremental, but critical, progress towards ensuring women have access to safe, legal abortion services in these limited circumstances,” said Monica Arango, Latin America regional director at the U.S.-based Center for Reproductive Rights on July 7.
The changes come after a 2011 ruling from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CADEW) that condemned it for violating the human rights of a 13-year old girl, L.C. who was denied a legal abortion.
Doctors refused to operate on L.C. because they said it posed a threat to her pregnancy, the result of rape. She later miscarried, though medical care came too late and left her quadriplegic, the Center for Reproductive Rights said.
More than half of Peruvians supported the guidelines in an Ipsos Peru poll published in El Comercio newspaper yesterday. 64 percent were in favour, though this masks a divide between stances in Peru’s cities and rural communities.
Approval rates were higher in Lima at 72 per cent, dropping to 50 per cent in Peru’s centre, populated by communities in the Andes mountains and jungle.
Additionally, 52 percent surveyed agreed that a medical board should decide the outcome in cases not discussed in the guidelines, while 47 percent said pregnancies arising from rape should allow legal abortion.
The U.N.’s CADEW called on Peru to change its laws on abortions following cases of rape or severe deformity of the foetus, in a report published yesterday.
Peru has the highest rate of reported rape in South America, where girls and adolescents make up for 78 per cent of cases.
The report recommended the emergency pill should be made available to those who need it, and Peru “urgently” adopt a law that combated domestic violence.
The Minister for Women and Vulnerable People, Carmen Omonte, said that the guidelines “were repaying a historic debt with the women of this country.”
According to 2013 figures from the reproductive rights group Promsex, 371,420 abortions take place a year in Peru.
Like many Latin American countries, the conservative Catholic Church wields significant influence in policymaking circles.
In April bishops of the Catholic Church issued a communiqué titled “the abortion protocols kill, not save lives” asking the Health Ministry not to the pass the guidelines.
Representatives of the church said nothing contained in the guidelines would “result in a treatment that permits a satisfactory results for both lives, that of the mother and child.”
The Church has criticised the methodology of the Ipsos poll and says public attitudes are less supportive.