Five of the six countries in the world with a total ban on abortion are in the Americas – El Salvador, Honduras, Chile, Haiti and Nicaragua (the sixth is Malta)—where the church continues to influence stigmatising and discriminatory laws and societal attitudes towards women and their bodies.

In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega outlawed abortion without any public consultation, weeks after taking office in 2007. Schools and universities have been effectively banned from mentioning abortion; women’s rights activists report threats and intimidation.

In Mexico, the capital Mexico City held widespread public consultations, opinion polls and televised debates which helped pass a landmark reform in 2007 legalising elective abortions in the first trimester. The fear of similarly open debates and reforms spreading across the country triggered an immediate conservative and religious backlash which led to 17 of the country’s 31 states tightening access to abortion by moving to “protecting foetal rights” at the moment of conception.

There have also been some notable recent gains.

In 2012 amid a wave of progressive policies under former president Jose Mujica, which confronted longstanding taboos on homosexuality and reproductive rights, Uruguay became the second country in the Americas after Cuba to allow elective abortion in the first trimester.

Earlier this year Dominican Republic relaxed its total ban on abortion to allow for some exceptions, and similar reforms are expected in Chile shortly. 

Read related essays here and here. 

This article was first published in Index on Censorship magazine. Index on Censorship is a global quarterly magazine, covering free expression issues around the world. It was first published in 1972 and set up by the poet Stephen Spender. Buy a subscription at: