Human rights organizations are calling on Paraguayan officials to allow a 10-year-old rape victim to end her pregnancy, arguing that the country’s harsh abortion ban is comparable to torture.
Authorities say that the girl, whose name is being withheld, became pregnant after she was sexually assaulted by her stepfather. Her pregnancy was not discovered until she was about 20 weeks along and started complaining of a stomachache. Now, she isn’t being permitted to have an abortion.
Abortion is illegal in Paraguay except in very rare cases when it’s deemed necessary to save a woman’s life. Government officials — including the Paraguayan Ministry of Health — say there’s “no indication” that the child’s health is at risk, even though medical experts agree that very young adolescents under the age of 15 have higher risks of medical complications during childbirth compared to adult women.
Data collected by the World Health Organization confirms that girls in Latin America who give birth before they turn 16 years old are four times more likely to die during childbirth than young women in their twenties. In Paraguay specifically, 28 minors died last year due to complications stemming from giving birth.
Amnesty International has launched a petition pressuring the Paraguayan government to reverse course, arguing that the child’s age should make her eligible for the country’s narrow abortion exception. According to the group, the girl’s mother also asked for permission for her to have an abortion this week.
“The physical and psychological impact of forcing this young girl to continue with an unwanted pregnancy is tantamount to torture,” Guadalupe Marengo, the Americas Deputy Director at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “The Paraguayan authorities cannot sit idly by while this young rape survivor is forced to endure more agony and torment…Paraguay must step up to its responsibilities under international law.”
The United Nations has also likened cutting off abortion access to torture. Under international human rights law, reproductive rights are recognized as a critical aspect of reducing maternal mortality, and UN officials regularly call on countries with particularly harsh abortion bans to remove unnecessary restrictions on the procedure.
Nonetheless, Latin America is home to some of the world’s strictest abortion laws, and six countries there ban the procedure without any exceptions. In addition to driving up the rate of unsafe abortions, these harsh bans also ensure that some women are sent to prison after being accused of murdering their unborn children.
It’s not unusual for the region to spark international controversy with extreme cases. In recent years, an 11-year-old rape victim in Chile was denied an abortion and a 22-year-old woman in El Salvador almost died from lupus because the government wouldn’t let her have a life-saving abortion.
The current fight in Paraguay is putting a spotlight on the issues of incest and sexual assault plaguing very young girls, which significantly contributes to the rates of unintended pregnancy in this region of the world. According to government officials, about 680 Paraguayan girls between the ages of 10 and 14 years old gave birth last year, and many of those pregnancies were the result of sexual abuse perpetrated by their male relatives.
“Too often, society blames only the girl for getting pregnant,” Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of the UN Population Fund, wrote in a recent report about teen pregnancy in the developing world. “The reality is that adolescent pregnancy is most often not the result of a deliberate choice, but rather the absence of choices, and of circumstances beyond a girl’s control.”