Women’s Reproductive Rights in the US and Latin America

14 Amendment 9th Amendment Abortion Barriers to healthcare Constitution gender equity Health Equity Judicial equity Public health Policy Roe v. Wade societal change society and health Womens Rights

In 2021 the Mexican Supreme Court decriminalized abortions. Now many in the US have started talking about abortions in Mexico for some Americans should Roe v. Wade be overturned. In Chile abortion access has been debated for more than a decade. The ban was lifted briefly in 2017 only to be reversed in less than a year. At this time though Chile’s new constitution may be the first to clearly codify female reproductive rights. In Brazil abortions are legal only in cases of rape and incest. The country though has both grass roots and high level efforts within government to make safe abortions available for women. In all 8 countries in Latin America with Colombia being the most recent support safe access to abortions for women.

The British Common Law which preceded our Constitution allowed access to abortion up to the time of quickening. This law placed the decision on abortions firmly in the purview of women. Only a pregnant mother can tell when she feels the movement of the unborn child. In those early days abortion lay firmly in the domain of women. In the US most were women of color some of whom were also midwives. Medicalization of childbirth and transition of obstetrics care from the home to the hospital cannot be ignored when discussing abortion access. Overtime childbirth transitioned from the mostly female, usually colored midwives to a domain controlled by men, mostly white men. This transition negatively impacted income sources for women and reduced access to obstetrics and abortion care to poor minority women.

Global Abortion Access Map

Abortion rights globally
Global abortion access map, though Mexico granted abortion access on request this Supreme Court decision is still not fully implemented in all regions so, the map has not been updated yet. Source: Center for Reproductive Rights

The Origins of Roe v. Wade

Anti-abortion legislation only started to sweep across the US in the mid 1860s. Until that time the US operated based on the English Common Law when it comes to childbirth and abortions. Unfortunately US always had different rules for enslaved people who never had control of their bodies. In 1970 Jane Roe (Norma McCorvey) an unmarried Texas woman wanted to safely and legally end her pregnancy. Roe sued challenging a Texas statute which restricted abortion access to instances when the mother’s life was at risk.

On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court court sided with Roe and struck down the Texas statute effectively making abortion access a nationwide reality again. The decision in Roe v. Wade was based on an individual’s rights to privacy enshrined in the constitution within the 9th and the 14th amendments. The Supreme Court, decided in this case that abortion and birth control cases are private issues.

“This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or … in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether to terminate her pregnancy.— ” Roe, 410 U.S. at 153 [Justice Harry Blackmun (1908 -1999)]

Implications of Justice Alito’s Opinion Document

With the current leaked document by Justice Alito, one may wonder when American women lost this right. The US adopted the Ninth Amendment in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights proposed by James Madison. So the Roe v. Wade decision did not provide access to abortion, it only confirmed that right. In that light it is difficult to rationally justify a rollback. The Roe v. Wade decision effectively reiterated the fact that women in America have always had a right to legal and safe abortions. For some reason at some point in our history we made a choice to stop recognizing that right.

Justice Alito’s draft opinion appears to be telling American’s we are going to close our eyes, ears and hearts and take away your basic right to privacy in matters of family life, marriage and sex. We are taking our women back in time to the 17th and 18th centuries. We want to treat all our women like we treated enslaved women in those days. After reading the opinion all I hear is the ramblings of an old man seeking a path into heaven on the backs of others.

Status of US States in the Absence of Supreme Court Support for Roe v. Wade

Abortion rights US States
Many States in the US already have laws restricting access to abortions and many American women would be at risk should Roe v. Wade be overturned. Source: Center for Reproductive Rights

Justice Alito a devout catholic is forgetting a basic principle of Christian doctrine; each of us is only responsible for our own salvation. Philippians 2:12 “Therefore my beloved, just as always you have obeyed, not only as in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. Whilst we are free to use our powers of persuasion to urge our colleagues to live moral lives it is not in our christian duty to use the law to promote morality. Laws are meant to create harmony in society and protect our citizens. Overturning Roe v. Wade will only put the lives of many women at risk and create a fertile opportunity for unlicensed medical care. Unfortunately Alito’s ecclesiastical philosophy has always been to use his position to drive a moral Christian doctrine in our societies from the courts.

Can We Make Laws Based On Religion And Morality?

Whilst I have no doubt that Justice Alito and his supporters have very good reasons to seek to overturn Roe v. Wade, having good reasons for doing something does not make it right. We have done many things including colonized several nations and enslaved our own kin in the name of good reason. Today most of us have come to understand the harms caused by these actions. Unfortunately though, some still continue to enjoy the wealth these activities brought them. As humans we are very good at finding good reasons for anything we want to do right or wrong.

Today Justice Alito seeks to use his Catholic faith to drive women into the corners of illegal back alley abortions. On the other hand Latin America’s largely Catholic populations are clamoring for better reproductive rights for women. At this time 8 Latin American countries guarantee safe access to abortions for women. Mexico with 72% professing Catholics has legalized abortions through its supreme court. The US however seeks to take away that right in the name of morality.

I am pro-life, but I respect the rights of women to make good decisions about bringing a child into this world. I hope we would all grow to understand and respect that sacred right.

Feature photo: Baby in womb courtesy of Molly Des Jardin Flickr

By Dr. Leonard Sowah an internal medicine physician in Baltimore, Maryland


A physician providing primary medical care to patients across the lifespan