Clashes erupt after Ecuador fails to decriminalize abortion for rape victims

Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá
Photograph: Dolores Ochoa/AP

Clashes have erupted between pro-choice demonstrators and police outside Ecuador’s national assembly after lawmakers rejected a bill which would decriminalize abortion in cases of rape.

Abortion is illegal in Ecuador except in cases where the life of the mother is in danger, or if the pregnancy is the result of the rape of a woman with mental disabilities.

Sentences range from six months to two years in prison, though lawmakers had been debating a reform of the law – which has been in place since 1938 – since the beginning of this year.

The reform – which would have also expanded access to abortion in cases of incest and foetal malformation – fell five votes short of the 70-vote threshold required to pass.

Fifty-nine legislators voted against while six abstained, revealing deep divisions on the issue in the Catholic country.

Pro-choice activists say that the decision to reject the bill amounts to a death sentence for those who will continue to be forced to seek backstreet abortions, which resulted in 15.6% of maternal deaths in 2014, according to a 2017 report from the country’s health ministry.

“We are in mourning for all the women that are going to die because of clandestine abortions,” said Ana Cristina Vera, a supporter of the bill, during a video interview with local newspaper El Comercio outside the national assembly, where chants against the decision could be heard in the background. Police later dispersed protesters with pepper spray. Some pro-life demonstrators also celebrated the decision outside the building.

Activists backing the decriminalization of abortion hold a demonstration outside the national assembly building in Quito on Tuesday. Photograph: Rodrigo Buendía/AFP/Getty Images

Activists also argue that alarming rates of rape in the country will continue to put women at risk of unwanted pregnancy and risky clandestine terminations.

Between 2015 and 2018 nearly 14,000 cases of rape were reported, 718 of them of girls under 10 years old, according to the attorney general’s office, while between 2008 and 2018, more than 20,000 girls under 14 – Ecuador’s age of consent – have given birth.

Related: Latin American rape survivors who were denied abortions turn to UN

Relaxing Ecuador’s strict abortion laws has long been faced down by political opposition. A similar reform was rejected in 2013, after the then president, Rafael Correa, threatened to resign should it pass.

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, the archbishop of Quito urged lawmakers not to amend the law. “God is the God of life, not the God of death,” he said.

Some in the national assembly proposed tougher sentences for rapists, as opposed to relaxing abortion restrictions.

Abortion is illegal in much of Latin America, though many countries – including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Panama – make exceptions in cases of rape.

It is completely banned in Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Despite the defeat, Wilma Andrade, one of the bill’s most vocal supporters in the national assembly, struck a defiant tone on Wednesday.

“The debate over abortion for rape was not in vain. Today society knows that in Ecuador, raped women are criminalized,” Andrade, tweeted. “[Now] begins a new phase together with thousands of girls and women that I represent.”