I’m proud to have been born and raised in Indiana, but I’ve got a question for my fellow Hoosiers: Do you miss Dick yet? That is, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the legendary statesman and moderate Republican who was defeated in the GOP primary this year by conservative Christian Tea Partyer Richard Mourdock — who during a debate this week said that if a woman becomes pregnant during a rape, “that is something that God intended to happen.” Mourdock later clarified the appalling remark, insisting he only meant that the pregnancy, not the rape, was God’s will. But as Mourdock’s benighted kindred spirit and Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin will tell him, not even the Almighty can pull you out of a verbal ditch that deep.
At least not in the U.S., where in a CNN/ORC poll this year a resounding 83% of Americans said that no matter where they stood generally on abortion, it should always be permitted in cases of rape or incest. But the likes of Mourdock and Akin would be right at home in the part of the world I cover: Latin America. Whenever they hear pols like Mourdock go off, in fact, Americans would do well to look south of their borders as a reminder that his cruel world isn’t just a delusion. No region has as many countries (five) that ban abortion in all cases, even rape and when the mother’s life is at risk, or sees as many instances of judges and other government officials rejecting women’s requests for legal abortions, especially in cases of rape. Those draconian policies result from a belief, driven largely by the inordinate political power of Latin America’s Catholic and Evangelical churches, that pregnancy of any kind is God’s inviolable will — and the heartbreak it causes is epic.
All too typical are nightmares like that of a 13-year-old Peruvian girl known as “L.C.,” who in 2007 became pregnantafter being raped repeatedly — but who couldn’t get an abortion because Peru, while allowing abortion if a woman’s life is at risk, bans it in cases of rape. Distraught, L.C. attempted suicide by throwing herself off a roof; she gravely injured her spine instead. Yet doctors, cowed by the law, wouldn’t perform the necessary surgery because they feared it might terminate the pregnancy. L.C. miscarried anyway and today is a quadriplegic.(Last year the U.N. ordered Peru to compensate the girl.) Or the case of a 32-year-old woman in Argentina who had been kidnapped, forced to work in a prostitution ring and raped. Despite everything she’d been through, an Argentine judge rejected her claim of rape — then helped leak her identity so anti-abortion protesters could demonstrate in front of the woman’s home shouting, “Murderer!” Argentina’s Supreme Court finally ruled this month that she can have an abortion.
As a result, few regions see more women seek unsafe clandestine abortions than they do in Latin America: more than 4 million a year, according to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute. A quarter of them, not surprisingly, end up hospitalized or worse from complications. Making matters worse is the scant access Latin American women have to birth control — a big reason some countries, especially in Central America, see maternal mortality rates (100 deaths per 100,000 births in Nicaragua) 20 times higher than Western Europe’s. Nor are restrictions like the rape refusal a deterrent: Latin America still has one of the world’s highest abortion rates, more than 30 per 1,000 women of childbearing age. The U.S. rate is fewer than 20.
Fortunately, the U.S. has so far rejected Latin America’s brand of abortion extremism. Even Mississippi, a bastion of Christian conservatism, last year rejected a “personhood” amendment that declared life begins at conception — the sort of stance Mourdock and company would use to deny abortion rights to rape victims. Most U.S. Catholics reject their church’s atavistic teaching that abortion is unacceptable even in cases of rape or incest. Most U.S. Catholics, in fact, think abortion should be kept legal in most cases.
The message here, for everyone from Mourdock to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the pro-life lawmakers who have recently tried to narrow the definition of rape, is that most Americans don’t just believe that barring abortion in cases of rape would be unjust policy. We also think, especially given that most of us believe in God, that it’s inhumane theology. And we’ve got Latin American stories like L.C.’s to remind us why.